IYA 2009 MALTA
  The Circle, 3rd May 2009
 

Bringing The Cosmos Down To Earth

MARIE CLAIRE TONNA finds out more about the science of celestial bodies - astronomy - 400 years after Galileo scientifically observed the heavens
I have often wondered why the starry hours of darkness have featured so persistently in a myriad of cultures and societies, evoking countless myth, art, literature, and inspiration as a result. No matter if you’re a child, an adolescent or an adult, the night sky never fails to impress: it becomes a familiar and homely characteristic of our culture, whether it assumes the form of an onlooker on a romantic evening or simply a loyal companion guarding a wish.
Admittedly, it may at times become a daunting facet of our lives, as it also represents that potent force which we can’t exactly put our finger on. After all, those heavenly bodies are not just heavenly bodies – they are what we often seek out in order to find answers about our very own existence, our flesh and blood.
The science of celestial bodies – astronomy, is known to be one of the oldest sciences, having been around since prehistoric times when early societies assembled massive structures so as to determine the seasons’ rituals. But it was only until the father of modern observational astronomy had strutted along, that astronomy was given the leeway to develop into the modern science that it is today. Yes, that man is none other than Galileo Galilei and he systematically observed the heavens with a telescope in 1609.
As a tribute marking the 400th anniversary of this occasion, UNESCO and the International Astronomical Union (IAU) have declared this year the International Year of Astronomy (IYA). Conveniently, 2009 also happens to mark another spectacular event in the history of space exploration, one which we homo sapiens have much to gloat about – the 40th anniversary of the first manned moon landing. It was Apollo 11 that got it right this time, on July 21, 1969.
The vision of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 is being realised by 137 countries, all under a unifying mission for harmony, peace and understanding – an inspiration founded in the meaning of the Greek word ‘cosmos’ (order). Second to that, the IYA is aiming to stimulate worldwide interest, especially among young people, in astronomy and science under the central theme “The Universe, Yours to Discover”.
A galaxy of events and activities – pardon the pun – are being held in various locations around the globe, Malta included. These are being geared towards helping the general public rediscover their place in the Universe, as the theme suggests. Moreover, there is great effort being put in making aware astronomy’s contribution to the development and understanding of other subject matters such as science, philosophy, religion and culture. In short, the astronomical societies, science communicators, educators, science centres and institutions, planetariums etc hosting these activities and events around the world, are striving throughout this year to bring the Universe live to a venue near you.
The IYA 2009 Malta was launched in the final days of January, by an entourage of astronomy enthusiasts who form part of the Astronomical Society of Malta (set up in  1984) and the Astronomical Sciences Group (Department of physics, University of Malta) – the most recent addition to our inventory of astronomical entities. They have now joined forces to form the IYA committee and have in store a year full of astronomical surprises both for adults and children, amateurs and professionals with the likes of observations, seminars, workshops, exhibitions, competitions and visits by astronomers and astronauts or people involved in related fields, to mention only a few.

Although the committee is collaborating in events which are being held internationally, there are also those which are given a local twist in order to address our own cultural heritage. As an example, the committee is seeking to highlight Malta’s cosmological past which too has much to teach us. For starters, it has been claimed that there is evidence to suggest that at Mnajdra prehistoric temples, the inhabitants of the Neolithic age have observed the night sky and heavenly bodies as much as the inhabitants at Stonehenge for about the same reasons.
Furthermore history reveals that in 1783, Grand Master De Rohan assembled an observatory at his Palace in the capital city, Valletta, and British astronomer William Lassell set up large telescopes first at St John's Cavalier in 1852 and then at Tigné Barracks in 1861. The latter happened to be the world's largest equatorially mounted telescope at the time, having a length of over 11 metres and requiring three persons to operate it. Last but not least, the Cambridge Solar Research Station was set up in 1966 at Rabat to study solar magnetism along with an observatory in Qrendi by the University College of Dublin to observe pulsars. Today, many of us have forgotten the splendour of the stars since they have been blotted out by light pollution – another issue being addressed by the IYA Malta committee. This is visibly no mean feat since what was once a favourable astronomical location has now become one which surprises us with glimpses of the true night sky.
So whether you enjoy the self-challenge of mapping out a carpet of stars, or you simply want to make yourself more familiar with Peter Pan’s twinkling planet (second star to the right), the IYA2009 will be giving you the opportunity to get to know the Universe better. No matter your age or level of expertise, the IYA needs you to participate, explore and contribute in making successful what is hoping to become a uniting global phenomenon in the name of astronomy.
I trust you know what to do next: ditch your gimmick laser cosmos and glow-in-the-dark cosmic stickers and go for the full galactic experience at your doorsteps – only available till 2009.
No, not really. If you’re dying for more, the local astronomical societies will know how to keep you entertained with its range of yearly local goings-on. Enjoy!
For a calender of IYA Malta’s events visit http://iya2009malta.page.tl

 
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