Monday, January 05, 2009

Year of the Stars

2009 heralds the Year of the Ox according to the ancient Chinese calendar. However, the International Astronomy Union and UNESCO declared it is also the International Year of Astronomy. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of modern astronomy and what better excuse is there to party with the stars?

Over the next twelve months, museums, governments and astronomy enthusiasts all over the globe will be publicizing and promoting the stars and planets above. The planned events include everything from teaching the science of outer space, to exploring how astronomy influenced societies and cultures over the millennia. Some events will utilize the very latest in internet technology while others will go back to the first telescopes, all with the intent to get people excited about astronomy. Already 135 countries are officially involved, with more expected to sign on as the year progresses. There are many ways to get involved either on your own or along with any museums or universities in the area.

The planners picked 2009 to correspond with the 400th anniversary of Galileo's fist use of a telescope for astronomy. In 1609, using the new instrument, he was the first person to observe the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter. He used the movements of Jupiter's moons as evidence that the Sun didn't orbit the Earth, but in fact the Earth orbited the Sun. After he published his findings, the Catholic Church denounced his conclusions and ordered him to recant his beliefs. Galileo refused and was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.

The Catholic Church has come a long way from this hard line stance in 1609. It officially embraced the Sun centered view of the universe in 1835, and in 1992 Pope John Paul II officially apologized for the actions of the Church. At the same time, the Church has also gotten more and more involved with the study of astronomy. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it sponsored the construction of several observatories, including one in the Vatican itself. In the mid nineteenth century, Father Angelo Secchi was one of the first scientists to declare the Sun a star, and was the first to use spectroscopy to classify distant stars. The Vatican's observatory has been continually upgraded over the years and is still in use today. Of course, it too is also on tap to be a participant in this year's big astronomy bash.

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