Depiction of Galileo demonstrating his astronomical telescope.2009 has been designated the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Galileo first pointing the new invention of the telescope at the sky.

(Almost as famous as this act of opening our eyes to wonders we’d never witnessed, Galileo was tried by the Inquisition for pointing out that there were more things in heaven than were imagined by Church doctrine–but that’s another story altogether…)

It’s an intriguing fact that, beyond the Sun merely being a bright disk, the Moon a not-so-bright and slightly mottled disk, the stars pinpoints of light and the planets pinpoints of light that move, everything we have learned about the universe and the objects in it we have learned in the last four centuries, since the invention of the telescope and Galileo’s putting it to it’s most famous use: astronomy.

Galileo saw on the Moon craters, mountains, and valleys, and likened the “uneven, rough… depressions and bulges” to Earth’s geographical features. Venus was revealed to undergo lunar-like phases, which provided controversial insight into the layout of the Solar System. Jupiter had four small “star-like” moons that moved around it–which defied Church doctrine holding that everything in the universe goes around the Earth. And Saturn possessed jug-handle-like protrusions, whatever those were!

It may be difficult to imagine what Galileo was feeling when he made these discoveries of things we take for granted. How exciting to peer through that celestial peephole and discover that the Moon is another world, and that there are worlds out there that had never been seen or imagined before. Sure, new discoveries about Mars keep rolling in, and we’re finding a new extrasolar planet about every month–but the excitement about these discoveries is tempered by the fact that we already suspected things like these as possibilities. For Galileo, the magnified astronomical sky was practically a blank canvass.

Back to IYA 2009–what’s going on? Who’s promoting this, and what is being done to celebrate?

NASA is promoting it, and many different organizations (including Chabot and the Eastbay Astronomical Society) are participating in a number of ways: star parties, special programs, special events, and good old fashioned put-your-eye-to-this-telescope-and-gawk public observing activities.
Honestly, there’s nothing like looking through a telescope–and it doesn’t have to be a large one. I don’t doubt that I first became inspired into astronomy when, as a child, my family would take me to Chabot Observatory to look through the telescopes.

When the new Chabot Space & Science Center reopened the telescopes after the move to our present site, I found all of the childhood wonder flooded back when I put my eye to the eyepiece to regard Saturn. There’s an excitement that simply can’t be achieved by looking at photographs. You just have to experience it for yourself, as Galileo did four centuries ago…

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The International Year of Astronomy 12 June,2013Ben Burress


Ben Burress

Benjamin Burress has been a staff astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center since July 1999. He graduated from Sonoma State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in physics (and minor in astronomy), after which he signed on for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where he taught physics and mathematics in the African nation of Cameroon. From 1989-96 he served on the crew of NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. From 1996-99, he was Head Observer at the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer program at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ.

Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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