Back in the late 1950s, the world scientific community focused a yearlong effort on the geosciences, a global movement known simply as IGY-the International Geophysical Year. During the 1980s, a famous pop song, titled "IGY", was recorded by Donald Fagen of the jazz-rock band Steely Dan. This song toasted the optimistic future envisioned at the time of IGY.
Now it's time to welcome a brand new global, yearlong science program; this time the focus is astronomy and it's called IYA-the International Year of Astronomy. It's a year that may also produce some new discoveries in the field, so stay tuned.
The year 2009 was proclaimed as the IYA by several international organizations including the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the United Nations' UNESCO agency.
The year marks the four-hundredth anniversary of Galileo Galilei's first use of a telescope for astronomical observation, so you can see why it's an ideal moment to celebrate and focus international research on the heavens. It's also the year for you to discover the hobby of backyard astronomy. For a modest investment in a small telescope, you can begin exploring deep space from the comfort of your own backyard. With just a few basic astronomy books and a simple star map, you can navigate around the night sky like a pro. You can also seek out other enthusiasts and share your observing times.
So, 2009 promises to shape up to be a planetwide festival of astronomy-it's a good time for lapsed amateur astronomers to dust off their Christmas-gift telescopes and begin an observing regimen; it's also a good time for newcomers to purchase their first telescope and discover the wonders of the heavens.
"Astronomy is one of the oldest basic sciences," said Catherine Cesarsky, president of the IAU. "It continues to have a profound impact on our culture and is a powerful expression of the human intellect."
Thanks to the IAU's organizing efforts, there are many opportunities to join in the fun of IYA.
A visit to www.astronomy2009.org is a good place to start your 2009 voyage of discovery and see what's available to you, free, online. There will be links to ideas that will inspire you to turn your gaze heavenward.
If you're new to astronomy, this is the year to get started in a rewarding hobby that will challenge your intellect as well as your power of observation-to say nothing about the sense of awe at the vastness of the universe.
You'll find a list of worldwide astronomy clubs at www.astronomyclubs.com. Several Vermont-based clubs are listed on this website. You may discover like-minded enthusiasts down the road from you!
Science teachers can stimulate student interest in astronomy this year through various classroom activities; there are many resources to take advantage of. You can contact yours truly, the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador in Vermont, to bring fun-and free-presentations about astronomy and space travel to the classroom. You can also visit the IAU's IYA website mentioned earlier for more ideas about astronomy activities for yourself, school or community.
The universe is yours to discover in 2009. Ad astra!
Lou Varricchio, M.S.c., is a former NASA science writer. He is a member of the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program in Vermont. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.