The Times 24.01.09

The universe: Yours to discover

Four hundred years ago, Galileo Galilei aimed his telescope to the night sky and opened up a new era in science. He was able to observe celestial bodies up close and published his amazing discoveries: craters and mountains on the moon, four moons around Jupiter, the phases of Venus, sunspots and the stars of the Milky Way - our galaxy. Forty years ago, in one of the 20th century's greatest achievements, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

To commemorate these giant leaps for mankind, the United Nations and the International Astronomical Union have designated 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy. This year will be a global celebration of astronomy and its contribution to society and culture, with strong emphasis on education, public participation and the involvement of young people. Events are being held all around the world. In fact, a staggering 136 nations are collaborating to bring the universe closer to the earth.

IYA seeks to remind us of the humbling nature of gazing at the heavens. An antithesis in itself but it is only then that we truly realise how insignificant the earth is in the grandeur of the universe but also how important our tiny planet is, to our knowledge it being the only one, so far, which harbours life.

One of IYA 2009's aims is to raise awareness of light pollution and how the beauty of the night sky is progressively being drowned out, particularly over urban areas. Nowadays, light pollution is the greatest enemy of astronomy all over the world. One-fifth of the world's population can no longer see the Milky Way with the naked eye. Scientists are calling for the dark places on earth to be preserved so that we do not lose completely our window on the universe. Locally, Mepa has responded to this with the introduction of Dark-Sky Heritage areas in Gozo and Comino but much more needs to be done.

It is not a question of no lighting but of good lighting. The most persuasive arguments for lighting control are economic ones. Estimates by the International Dark-Sky Association, based on work from satellite images, show that European cities needlessly shine billions of euros directly into the sky each year. As education on these issues improves, some cities are now realising the benefits of controlling such energy waste through better-quality lighting.

The Maltese connection to astronomy is stronger than what we may consider it to be. Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan had set up an astronomical observatory at the Grand Master's Palace in Valletta in 1783. British astronomer William Lassell set up his telescopes first at St John's Cavalier in 1852 and then at Tigné Barracks in 1861. Here, he set up the world's largest telescope at the time, having a length of over 11 metres and requiring three persons to operate it.

The IYA 2009 Malta committee has planned a year-long list of activities and initiatives to popularise astronomy with the public at large and, especially, with school children. The events kick off on Tuesday at Robert Samut Hall, Floriana, where an exhibition of astronomical photographs will be opened. All images have been shot locally.

It is hoped that children will become interested in science and follow a scientific career. And that is why this year the universe is yours to discover.

Further information can be obtained online at iya2009malta. age.tl.

The author is an experienced astronomer and member of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 Malta Committee.

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