Written by: Emilio D’alise (SoSF Staff Journalist)
Perhaps not all are aware 2009 has been designated the International Year of Astronomy. What does this mean? It means the public will be targeted by a world-wide effort to raise awareness of what’s revolving above our heads. More precisely, we revolve under it, and I can say it these days without fearing a visit from the Inquisitors. Yep, it’s the 400th anniversary of Galileo incurring their wrath.
Galileo saw something and wanted to make others aware of it, and now, 400 years later, the aim is not just to raise awareness, but to elicit participation by people young and old, from varied backgrounds, and in far and near places around the world. The hub for this effort is the International Year of Astronomy website. This is a deceptively simple and unassuming site that opens up to a wide variety of groups, associations, universities, and international groups all wanting to make observing the universe a better understood, and enjoyed, activity.
Sure, people can go to the site on their own, but I figure making a few suggestions, and providing the more interesting links here, may spur more people to make the virtual journey. It was difficult to sort through everything and choose a manageable number of things to write about; what interests me varies with the mood I’m in, the time of day, the time of year, and the last meal I ate. I resolved the issue by writing about the links I find myself revisiting. The order of the following is not an indication of ranking, or of my preference; it’s just the order they appear on the International Year of Astronomy website.
100 Hours of Astronomy
This is a worldwide event whose key goals is having as many people as possible look through a telescope as Galileo did 400 years ago. It consists of a number of public outreach activities scheduled for April 2nd through April 5th. The closest event near me is at the Colorado National Monument (near Grand Junction, CO). Given some cooperation by the weather, I plan to attend. I mention the weather because the months of April and May are likely candidates for major snow events around these parts. The observation itself is scheduled during favorable viewing conditions (i.e. the moon is not too bright), but while we can predict what the moon will do, weather is not so easily predicted, especially here in Colorado.
This ambitious project aims to give ten million people their first look through an astronomical telescope. The plan is to do so by providing high-quality, low-cost (around $10) telescope kits. The telescopes will be provided in kit form as this will get the recipient involved in the understanding of the construction, and in having some investment in the tool they will use. I like this idea a lot, and plan to get some for my nephews. The only thing I am unsure about is the design of the telescope would have people see an inverted image, and while this is not necessarily a big deal when observing stars, it takes some getting used to when tracking an object like a planet or the moon. I do understand that will keep the cost down, and it is part of the learning process, but still, I’m hoping it will not turn some people off from learning to use it.
Dark Skies Awareness
This project ties in nicely with the energy concern we read about in the news. The project aims to make people aware of the “adverse impact of excess artificial lighting on local environments”. I moved to Colorado four years ago. I lived in a Detroit suburb, and although I have lived here in Colorado four years now, I still stop and stare when I walk outside on a clear night, or head to work in the early hours. It’s hard to convey the view by just saying “you see the stars”; a more accurate phrase is “you experience the stars”. I can walk out onto my deck before going to bed and stare at the big dipper which seems to be hanging just out of arm’s reach. Satellites are crossing the sky, and as your eyes adjust the gazillion light sources separate into groups of individual points of light. Grab a pair of binoculars, and you get lost looking at stars whose light traveled billion of years to strike the receptors in your eyes. I don’t live in a truly dark area; the glow of Colorado Springs is to the South of me, and to the North Denver spills its glow over the horizon toward me. Still, the sky above is dark enough to offer a spectacular sight . . . unless one of my neighbors left their outdoor lights on. The point is that in 30 years of living in Michigan I was deprived of the opportunity to see the universe above me for all but a few nights I spent in the Upper Peninsula, or at some vacation place. It would be nice if more people realized what they are missing, and actively worked to limit light pollution. It saves energy, and provides cheap entertainment in the form of mesmerizing displays of twinkling stars.
From Earth to the Universe
Those of us fascinated with the beauty hidden in the dark skies above will periodically seek out images captured by orbital and Earth-bound telescopes. Some of these photographs are truly stunning. The photographs deemed the most stunning are scheduled to travel around the world in exhibits held in public places; public parks, airports, malls, and anywhere diverse people can be exposed to the beauty of near and deep sky objects. There are a number of US and international events already planned, and more are in the process of being scheduled. (Note: if the reader wants some hands-on involvement, there is a project called Galaxy Zoo that might be of interest. In short, it aims to classify a large database of galaxies based on shape. This is done by people who sign up and essentially look at pictures of various galaxies and classify them according to a given criteria. You could be the first to ever look at a particular picture, and discover something new . . . or rather, very old.)
The World at Night
I am an amateur photographer, and this effort has spurned my interest in expanding (shameless plug) my photography into the realm of nighttime photography. The World at Night Galleries aim to showcase landmarks and symbols of various nations against the backdrop of the night sky. Perhaps viewing photographs from locales we are used to associate with the nightly news will remind us our politics, grudges, and differences are insignificant when put against the backdrop of the vastness of the visible sky. It may seem a hopeless cause, but every person who is moved to look beyond the pettiness of a world lost to misguided self-importance, that person is a prophet for improving the human condition. Not everyone can afford the time, expense, and effort of telescope observation, but nearly everyone can be made aware they need only raise their eyes a little bit to discover where our hope for the future lies. For surely if we continue looking down, the dirt we gaze upon will forever keep its hold on us.
The International Year of Astronomy website has much more to offer, and is well worth a visit. It’s also worth checking if your city or town is the home of a planetarium, star-gazing club, or astronomical observatory. Many offer tours, viewing parties, and various activities aimed at celebrating the last 400 years of mankind looking ever deeper in to the darkness of the night . . . only it turns out it’s not darkness at all. Go see for yourself.