The International Year of Astronomy, 2009

This post may seem a little late as 2009 is hardly the youngest of years at the moment, and I have already posted about several aspects of the International Year of Astronomy, 2009, but as the national launches are going on round the world this month (and in cyberspace), I thought I’d add a few words. The International Year of Astronomy is a year dedicated by the UN to the study of astronomy. It is a global outreach effort taking in dozens of countries that encourages public astronomical events and the use of astronomy in education. It has several Cornerstone Projects with worldwide implications, some special projects with specific aims and countries have national and local projects too. For those wishing to keep in touch with news on the IYA, then there’s a host of options from twitter to facebook, myspace, linked-in, orkut and youtube.

The Cornerstone Projects

There are eleven cornerstone projects in which people can participate. Here’s a quick rundown of the lot…

100 Hours of Astronomy is a project beginning in three weeks time whereby astronomers from research institutions, astronomical groups and private individuals will webcast and report on public observations they are performing. Register at the website if you’d like to put on an event and join the planet in putting on a 100 hour long star party.

The Galileoscope brings the concept of the clockwork laptop to astronomy – a very cheap but relatively high quality telescope that can be bought across the world. Your school has no scope? Fine buy one here. The telescope arrives as a kit, which can then be assembled whilst learning about optics and how refracting telescopes work. You get the chance of using either a concave eyepiece lens (as Galileo did) or a convex one as modern refractors do (to get a sense of why we changed). The website has a number of educational resources to get the most out of the kit.

So what do astronomers really do? The Cosmic Diary aims to demystify the world of astronomy by having professionals blog their day to day experiences. This isn’t about the science of astronomy, but rather the job astronomer. The Diary has its own facebook group too.

The Portal to the Universe will launch on April the First (honestly) acting as a news aggregator. This means it has access to loads of different sources of astronomical news (and will be sent others) and will display them all in one place to be viewed. This blog might even become more active from the first of April as a result…

She is an Astronomer is a way of promoting gender equality in astronomy, complying with one of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Looking at the board in my own department, it is interesting to note we had at the last count a fifty-fifty split in male to female students. In post docs (early career researchers in the first five to ten years after the doctorate) there is a 3:1 male:female split. In the old farts category (representing everyone still working who’s been around long enough to have moved on from the post-doc level, covering many years) there is a 7:1 male:female split. This suggests things are improving, but the legacy of people hanging around from less enlightened times skews things a little. We’re at the right levels at training level, it’ll just take a while for that to filter up to the other two (in my opinion of my department – of course the situation will be different in other places). Facebook group here.

Dark skies awareness aims to spread the word about light pollution, recognising the problem and mitigating it. I’ve written before about light pollution, international and national campaigns against it and have linked to Earth Hour (March the 28th at 8:30pm) and GLOBE at Night (from Monday 16-28 March). To these, I could add the International Dark Skies Week, but sadly they failed to mention when it is… left us in the dark so to speak. The Great World Wide Starcount is another GLOBE at Night like event, but hosted in October. There is also a series of educational resources and a facebook group.

Astronomy and World Heritage is a UNESCO initiative to identify and protect astronomical properties, making people aware of the cultural impact these have had. During the year, the project aims to help establish associations between owners of the properties and promote the use of them for star parties and other public astronomical events as well as disseminate knowledge within the group and to the public.

The Galileo Teacher Training Project aims to produce ambassadors for astronomy in the classroom. The project hopes to produce a network of teachers that will last beyond 2009, a website with tools and resources for teachers that will eventually have a ranking system relying on pilot schemes and continual use, a certification program and the goal of 3-6,000 Galileo ambassadors by 2012. The ambassadors will be certified in their knowledge of Galileo’s contributions, the various year of astronomy activities, the use of web-based activities such as google sky and robotic telescopes (eg the Schools Observatory project including the Liverpool Telescope, the Faulkes Project and the Bradford Telescope) and basic astronomical knowledge such as constellations phases of the Moon etc etc etc.

Universe Awareness is an attempt to inspire awareness of the cosmos and the wonders of the universe in the minds of very young children in underprivileged backgrounds. The hope is to inspire global citizenship through understanding that we’re all sharing the same speck of rock in an enormous universe.

From the Earth to the Universe is an attempt to park the tanks of astronomy on lawns so far unruffled by the activity. Events are to be hosted in “nontraditional” environments (so far including a science centre in Scotland and a teachers’ conference, but I’m sure things will grow) that may allow the images of astronomy to be foisted on those unaware of or even hostile towards science. Ofer Lahav’s talk at the Tate on Cosmic Distances (mentioned in an earlier post) would well be the sort of event ideal for this project.

Finally, Developing Astronomy Globally hopes to reinforce and redevelop links between the various astronomical institutions – professional (universities and research), public (amateur astronomy and the media) and educationally (schools and colleges). Its website includes such wonderful pages containing information such as “Soon.” under the activities section. Another cornerstone project taken by surprise by the sudden arrival of the International Year of Astronomy, 2009…

Special Projects

As well as the Cornerstone Global projects, there are nine special individual projects that have been given preferential treatment during this Year of Astronomy. These are:

The World at Night is a stunning collaborative photographic project involving the cream of the world’s astrophotographers. The aim is to have as much of the world’s great landmarks snapped against a backdrop of stars and planets as possible either by finding one of their old pics or by going out there and doing it. The results are rendered as pictures and time lapse videos.

400 Years of the Telescope aims to promote knowledge about Galileo’s work on the telescope. Their products include an IMAX documentary, a planetarium program, co-ordinated outreach programs and the usual online resources such as a discussion forum, newsletters and the like.

The Mutual Phenomena of the Galilean Satellites of Jupiter. This is a global observation campaign to record photometry during the mutual occultation period – ie when the Galilean Satellites transit Jupiter and later are occulted by Jupiter. This sight is only available when Jupiter and the Galilean satellites are all in the same line of sight throughout their orbits and so only happens every six years. The same thing is happening with Saturn at the moment, but that can only be observed with a large telescope (larger than 45cm or nearly 18 inches in diameter). Click through the website to find important dates.

Around the World, Around the sky is a documentary on the observatories of the world and the astronomy they do.

Similarly, Exoplanet Hunters is a documentary focusing on… well… those who hunt for exoplanets, specifically of the Earth sized variety.

1919 Eclipse is a celebration of Arthur Eddington’s work in confirming the predictions of the relativistic bending of light by the Sun. In that year, Eddington took images of a solar eclipse (along with colleagues in Brazil) and then publicly measured the positions of stars near the Sun, declaring them to have shifted in apparent position according to the predictions of General Relativity, which states that a bending of time and space near a large gravitational source such as the Sun will be visible thus. The expedition will lay a plaque, give lectures on the previous expedition and found an exhibition on gravitational lensing from 1919 to now. All because of a guy from Kendal…

The Sky – Yours to Discover is the world’s largest dot-to-dot puzzle. Children and young people are encouraged to look up into the night sky, come up with their own asterisms (constellations) and write stories behind each one.

BLAST! is the Balloon-borne Large Aperture Sub-millimeter Telescope, which aims to map the skies in longer wavelengths, which are absorbed high up in the atmosphere. BLAST the movie follows what it calls the Indiana Jones style astronomy…

Finally Starpeace is an Iranian started global star party series. The object is for amateur astronomers in different countries that share borders to hold simultaneous star parties either side of the borderlines looking at the same objects, to remind people of the borderless nature of the world and the sky above.

Official Products

Of course, there’s no point just giving out money, always nice to rake a bit back, so here are the six official International Year of Astronomy products as of today:

The Cosmic Detective is a book that aims to take young readers on a journey to find their nearest neighbours in the universe.

Redshift Seven Premium is a planetarium program with over a billion objects in its database. You can plot the path of solar eclipses, follow deep space missions, go on 3d tours around the planets and there is even a Sky Diary mode that warns you of the things to look out for in the month ahead.

Eyes on the Skies is the International Astronomical Union’s book and DVD documentary celebrating the 400 years of the telescope.

The Sky scout is a ‘personal planetarium’. Using the GPS satellite network to tell it where it is, this camcorder sized device merely needs to be pointed at a thing in the sky to deliver a commentary on the history of it. Using the find function, users can ask to find a specific thing in the sky and arrows on the viewfinder will point out where it is.

Star Walk is an astronomical iPhone app, which provides a planetarium software application for those with Apple’s new phone.

The firstscope is effectively a reflecting version of the Galileoscope. Designed to be somewhere between an entry-level telescope and a stylish memento of the International Year of Astronomy, the first scope is decorated with the names of innovators in astronomy and the IYA logo. It costs $50 to the $10 of the Galileoscope and would probably complement it well on a shelf somewhere.

Naturally, the cornerstone projects that involve selling something like the Galileoscope and 400 years of the telescope are also official products of the International Year, details above.

Working groups

The IYA also has a number of committees designed to promote specific things. Some of them are obvious date ones like the New Year’s Eve event to announce the IYA is happening and the Opening and Closing Ceremony groups, and administrative groups such as the EU FP7 group to target funding for research, the New Media group for targeting the use of, well, New Media and the Evaluation committee who have to decide how it all went, but there are a few who are to do more interesting work:

Kepler aim to promote Kepler and his life and works by organising exhibitions, publishing his letters in English and investigating the possibility of commemorative stamps and coins.

Galileo want to do the same, but for Galileo Galilei.

Solar Physics looks at our closest star, the Sun and the various fields of astrophysics done with it – actual study from the ground with the Swedish Solar Telescope perhaps, or from orbit with SoHO and STEREO? Not to mention amateur observations with a bit of Baader filter paper or projection. The group would like to remind people that the 100 hours of astronomy marathon on the 5th of April will include a time when the Sun is up and this Sun Day will be a global solar observation opportunity too. The Sun is also a laboratory for gaining knowledge to apply to thinking on other stars as well as the engine behind things like the Aurora.

Philately will act as a global portal for all astronomy related stamps produced during the year – either for the year, for miscellaneous reasons or for events such as anniversaries, eclipses and the like.

And finally exoplanets 2009, who have created a website that acts as a portal for other exoplanetary activities, involving the best of exoplanets on the web.

The International Year in the UK

UK efforts are co-ordinated through the national site. Several projects have been announced and are being carried out including the following:

Star-light – a free magazine for schoolchildren to get the latest astro and space news.

Syon Park will host a series of lectures and solar viewings to celebrate Thomas Harriot as part of the 400 years of the telescope cornerstone project.

The UK’s own She is an Astronomer was launched in London earlier today.

To complement the Cosmic Diary, Greenwich has released the Cosmic Diary 1894 in blog format. Some names may overlap in the two diaries…

Several dark skies stuff including the continuation of Dark Skies Scotland and the Campaign for Rural England’s dark skies campaign. On top of this, regional committees have been established to investigate the dark skies over each bit of the UK and requests have been put out for any parks that can receive a Dark Sky Park Status. Phillips publishes a Dark Sky Map of Britain and Ireland.

The MoonWatch and Telescopes for Schools projects run by the Society for Popular Astronomy also make an appearance on this website. If you happen to be a school or know someone who is and want a free telescope for your pupils, apply for one through the Moonwatch website. The MoonWatch (Spring version) itself starts on the 28th of March.

A series of events all over the UK can also be found through the national website, or listen to their twittering here.

For even more local events, there are those run in Kendal itself (see your own local astronomy society website for events in your area). The Venus Watch and the Saturn Watch may both have fallen to clouds, but it can’t go on like this – can it? The Eddington AS Year of Astronomy Moon Watch will be on April the 3rd at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal – see you there, hopefully the Moon will join us too…


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