Star parties. Telescope-building workshops. Public lectures. Exhibitions. Dramatic reenactments. Those are among the seemingly astronomical number of activities under way this year to mark the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first pointing a telescope to the sky.

The International Year of Astronomy 2009, which has as its theme “the universe, yours to discover,” was initiated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the International Astronomical Union and endorsed by the UN. IYA is a “global celebration of astronomy and its contributions to society and culture, with a strong emphasis on education, public engagement and the involvement of young people,” according to the IYA website, http://www.astronomy2009.org. More than 130 countries are participating in the IYA. With events and activities at local, national, and international levels, organization is necessarily grass roots. Funding is from governments, professional societies, and private sponsors.

Among the IYA’s 11 global “cornerstone” projects is “100 Hours of Astronomy,” which kicks off on 2 April in Philadelphia with a lecture and exhibition featuring Galileo artifacts, and then goes on to four days—roughly 100 hours—of star parties, observations of the Sun, webcasts from research observatories, and other activities. “This is by far the biggest event of IYA2009,” says Mike Simmons, a retired medical researcher who is cochair of 100 Hours and founder of the nonprofit organization Astronomers Without Borders. Over one 24-hour period, amateur astronomers and other volunteers around the world will set up telescopes on sidewalks and in parks in the early evening. “You go where the people are. There will be events in Sri Lanka, in Iraq, everywhere,” says Simmons. The featured celestial objects, he adds, will be the Moon and Saturn. “They are ‘oh my god’ objects—that’s what you hear most when people see them for the first time.”

Another cornerstone project is “She is an Astronomer.” A website, http://www.sheisanastronomer.org, is being launched this month to provide information, a database, and an interactive forum about women in astronomy. As part of the project, says Montserrat Villar Martín, Spain’s IYA point person, “[in Spain] we are filming a series of six TV programs about the contributions of women to astronomy,” making a calendar in tribute to female astronomers, and creating the first comprehensive study of professional women astronomers in Spain. The ongoing “Universe Awareness,” also a cornerstone project, aims to expose young children in underprivileged environments to the scale and beauty of the universe (see Physics Today, June 2007, page 30). And “Cosmic Diary” is a blog intended to give the public a view into astronomers’ working and home lives.

Out of some 100 planned public lectures this year in France, “we have selected about 30 that will be interpreted in sign language and videotaped,” says Régis Courtin of the Paris Observatory. “We will show the tapes later in hospitals and prisons.” Courtin is coordinating about a dozen IYA activities for disabled people. Among others are the creation of a sign-language dictionary of astronomical terms, the design of telescopes for people in wheelchairs, and a trip for hearing-impaired young people to a rocket launch pad. “I do elementary-school talks as well,” he says, “but it’s even more rewarding to spread the good word of astronomy around to people who don’t have access.”

The “Astronomy 2009” island is the IYA’s official presence in the virtual world Second Life, of whose millions of residents some 70 000 are logged on at any given time. As a person’s avatar walks or flies along the pathways—the island layout is modeled on a spiral galaxy—it will pass exhibitions: astronomical artwork, astrophotography, night-time Earth-based photos, and more. The real-life IYA “365 Days of Astronomy” podcasts—a daily musing on astronomy themes produced by volunteers around the globe—can be accessed by Second Life residents. At the mixed-reality event that launched “Astronomy 2009” in January, “our island was completely full,” says the University of Arizona’s Adrienne Gauthier, a member of the IYA new-media task group. The goal, she adds, “is to inspire and engage residents of Second Life in astronomy. One of the hopes is that in their real life they’ll be inspired to seek out a planetarium or read an article in the New York Times science section.”

Among the myriad other IYA activities is the Japan-led East Asian Legends, in which traditional stories relating to the stars and the universe are being collected for a book. The Vatican will host an exhibition of historical astronomical instruments this fall and is planning to publish a book on the history of astronomy in Italy; one chapter will consist of papal writings on the matter. StarPeace is an Iranian initiative that encourages star parties as a means of creating goodwill and bridging national borders. For one such event, children in India and Pakistan watched a lunar eclipse in February. “They were much excited when I told them that the children from … Lahore were doing the same thing,” reported Narendra Sagar Gor, the event’s organizer in India. “When the cell phone rang from Pakistan everyone [was] eager to listen…. That was a great moment.”

The UK’s Society for Popular Astronomy has arranged to distribute 1000 70-mm telescopes to schools around the country. Australia is hosting a competition for high-school classes to win an hour of observing time on the 8-m Gemini South telescope. Entrants have to pick an object in the southern sky and explain why it would be “a great thing for the telescope to take a picture of.” In Taiwan, some 20%–30% of schoolchildren will be tested for their astronomy knowledge. Says astronomer Wei-Hsin Sun of Taiwan’s National Technical University, “The purpose is first to encourage students to learn from the IYA website, and the second is to set up a baseline.” Many events around the world combine astronomy with art, drama, dance, and music.

The IYA organizers aim to evaluate activities for their impact. “There is a lot of research on how to reach the public and how to teach astronomy,” says Simmons. “This will add to that body of literature and allow people to evaluate the legacy of IYA.” So, for example, on the IYA Second Life island, says Gauthier, “we have a sophisticated tracking system—we can see where people are, what they are looking at, if they’re repeat visitors.” She would like to survey visitors about their impressions and the impact on their daily lives but, she says, the real identities of Second Life visitors are not known, “and there are privacy issues to consider.”

In any case, public reaction so far has been enthusiastic. Says Ian Robson of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, “Astronomy is one of those things that just excite people—everyone can experience astronomy just by looking at the nighttime sky and wondering what’s out there.” IYA, he continues, is “astronomers’ opportunity to make astronomy available to the widest public and to generate enthusiasm and interest in young people to take up a career in science and technology.”

At the launch of the International Year of Astronomy, Brazil’s Kepler de Oliveira (left), South Africa’s Kevin Govender (looking through telescope), and Derrick Pitts of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia check out a prototype of a telescope that is now for sale under the IYA cornerstone project Galileoscope. The launch took place in January at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization headquarters in Paris.

At the launch of the International Year of Astronomy, Brazil’s Kepler de Oliveira (left), South Africa’s Kevin Govender (looking through telescope), and Derrick Pitts of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia check out a prototype of a telescope that is now for sale under the IYA cornerstone project Galileoscope. The launch took place in January at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization headquarters in Paris.

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Ourania Fizgig, the avatar of the University of Arizona’s Adrienne Gauthier, stands next to the 3D logo for the International Year of Astronomy, the commemorative year’s virtual-world presence.

Ourania Fizgig, the avatar of the University of Arizona’s Adrienne Gauthier, stands next to the 3D logo for the International Year of Astronomy, the commemorative year’s virtual-world presence.

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Astronomical instruments such as this 16th- century astrolabe will be featured in an exhibition at the Vatican this fall.

Astronomical instruments such as this 16th- century astrolabe will be featured in an exhibition at the Vatican this fall.

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A sign-language dictionary of astronomy in the works in France will include this new sign for quasar among 100 or so existing and new signs.

A sign-language dictionary of astronomy in the works in France will include this new sign for quasar among 100 or so existing and new signs.

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