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.