Image Credit: IAU/UNESCO
Four hundred years ago this year, the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei turned his spotting scope on the heavens and reported on his findings. He saw spots on the sun, craters and mountains on the Moon, moons circling Jupiter, and funny bulges on the sides of Saturn. He saw the planet Venus go through phases, just like our Moon does. He saw that the other planets were not tiny points of light like the stars, but were actually spheres like the Earth, Moon and Sun. He even became the first human to see the planet Neptune, though he did not recognize it for what it was. From these observations, Galileo was able to confirm that the Copernican view of the Solar System (that the Earth orbits the sun, as do all the other planets). Due to Galileo's findings, society was forever changed.
To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first use of the telescope, the International Astronomical Union and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have teamed together to declare 2009 the "International Year of Astronomy" (IYA). All year long there will be world-wide events celebrating the IYA, with the ultimate goal of getting every human on the planet to think about astronomy at least once during the year.
Even if you just think that telescope pictures are pretty and do not understand anything about them, you can help to celebrate this year and help us to reach our goal of touching every human this year. Most importantly, take advantage of at least one of the opportunities to learn more about astronomy that the IYA will be bringing forth. Next, if you think it worthwhile, help us to spread the word about the IYA. Get your friends and family to participate with you, even if it is just a night spent looking at the stars. Consider contributing money to some of our efforts to spread astronomy education to the developing world. Or just talk about how pretty the moon was last night.
For you Internet-savvy folks, here are a few ways to keep in touch with the IYA this year (besides reading my blog, of course!). First, check out Cosmic Diary, a collection of blog postings by professional astronomers who will be talking about their research. Second, listen to daily podcasts (audio posts) about astronomy at the 365 Days of Astronomy website. You can even subscribe via iTunes (assuming your MP3 player isn't frozen). Third, poke around on some of the blogs and links I have listed off on the right-hand side of this page. See what other people are talking about. Read about future events. Participate in discussion forums. Comment on astronomy blogs. In short, keep your eyes and ears and mind open, and have some fun learning about space and astronomy!
I hope you enjoy the International Year of Astronomy. Stay tuned!