2009 has been designated the International Year of Astronomy by the United Nations.
This year long designation is intended to mark 400 years of telescope observations from the time that Galileo first looked through a telescope. Like Galileo, everyone who has looked through a telescope has also experienced a “Galileo moment” when they first see distinct craters on the moon, the rings of Saturn or the four bright moons of Jupiter. One of the goals of the International Year of Astronomy (IYA) is to allow millions of people to experience a “Galileo moment.” Perhaps a New Year’s resolution would be to organize or participate in a public stargazing event in your community and join thousands of others in discovering celestial wonders through a telescope.
The beginning of a New Year along with IYA also offers us an invitation to learning, personal development, understanding others and creating stronger communities. Gazing at the night sky alone or with others is a simple activity but in a few minutes we make a profound connection with something majestic and beyond our lives and world. Timothy Ferris comments, “The universe is accessible to all, and can inform one’s existence with a sense of beauty, reason and awe as enriching as anything to be found in music, art, or poetry.” (Seeing in the Dark, p. xvi). Many have found the night sky to be a source of healing and stability during difficult and unsettling times in life. The order and grandeur of our starry canopy offers strength and security to our broken world and broken lives. I have met cancer survivors, those grieving significant loss and survivors of sexual abuse – all looking at the stars and finding strength for each day. Perhaps you will want to begin the New Year by spending a few minutes or a few hours under a clear dark sky for reflection on the wonder of life in the great cosmos. During the past month I have been asked several times about the really bright star in the southeast. Nobody looking to the sky in the early evening can miss the brightest object, the planet Venus, as it has now climbed higher into the evening sky and the long winter evenings offer Venus several hours to dominate earth’s dark skies. Venus is so bright that you should be able to find it with binoculars in the middle of the day and with careful observation, even see it with the naked eye. However, whether you see it in the daytime or early evening, binoculars or telescope will reveal Venus as a small “quarter moon” as half of Venus is now nighttime from earth’s perspective. Be sure to watch for Venus in early March as it becomes larger and appears in a telescope like a crescent new moon. Other planets have disappeared from the evening sky. Jupiter will be directly behind the sun near the end of January. Mars is also on the far side of the sun and mostly impossible to view this month. Saturn is best viewed in the early morning hours but will move into our evening skies as the year progresses. The most prominent constellation of January evenings is Orion. If you participate in a public event this month, an amateur astronomer can show you the Orion nebula – an enormous cloud of hydrogen gas and birthplace of stars. The Pleiades star cluster is well positioned for viewing high in the January sky. Binoculars will display a beautiful splash of bright diamonds on a black velvet sky.
The beginning of a new year along with views of the beautiful night sky, offers a very “Happy New Year!”
During the International Year of Astronomy Ken and Bev From will be offering regular public observing nights at their acreage near Didsbury, Alberta. Information on observing nights and links to IYA are available on their website, www.WhatsUpTonight.net.