Our Astronomical Heritage

Excitement is building for next year’s official designation of 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy, brought to you by the United Nations.

[You may remember the United Nations from such years as 2003: Year of Freshwater; 2005: Year of Physics; and, apparently, 2008: Year of the Potato.]

IYA was designated by the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei’s first astronomical observation through a telescope.

Official opening ceremonies will be in Paris on January 15 and 16, and the U.S. will launch it’s participation in the event during the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting in Long Beach, California.

IYA folks at AGU presented a couple fun projects related to the festivities, including mass distribution of $10 telescopes and nationwide pushes for dark skies, i.e., reduced light pollution, which would help stargazers as well as sea turtles.

From a NatGeo perspective, one of the more intriguing events is the Astronomy and World Heritage thematic initiative, which aims “to establish a link between science and culture on the basis of research aimed at acknowledging the cultural and scientific values of properties connected with astronomy.”


Portion of a zodiac on the ceiling of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, Egypt

—Photo by Victoria Jaggard

For the uninitiated, UNESCO’s World Heritage program has, since 1973, been designating sites around the globe as worthy of protection due to their natural or cultural significance.

NatGeo News has a long history covering World Heritage site news, from new additions to the list to whether funding cuts, tourist traffic, or political turmoil have caused damage to existing sites.

For IYA, UNESCO already has a groovy time line that highlights designated sites that can be linked to astronomy.

Of course, Stonehenge in the U.K. is a biggie, but there’s also the great pyramids of Egypt, the Temple of Heaven in China, and the healing sanctuary of Epidaurus in Greece.

One of my favorites of the sites already on the list is Samarkand in what is now Uzbekistan, which holds the Ulugh-Beg Observatory, built in 1492.


Remains of the Ulugh-Beg sextant

—Photo by Alaexis

Given the pre-telescope astronomy of the time, the Islamic observatory housed a massive stone sextant—the largest of its time—for accurately cataloging stars.

There’s also a special place in my heart for El Caracol at Chichen Itza, Mexico, a Maya observatory that seems to be aligned with the movements of Venus.

For next steps, I can only hope UNESCO will create a new list of astro-heavy sites to add to their hall of fame.

Top of my list for nominees would be the Aricebo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

The nearly 50-year-old site has not only made astounding contributions to astronomy, but has become a public icon thanks to films such as Contact and Goldeneye.

It’s also seriously low on funds, and could use every boost in public visibility to keep the dish in active service.

Any other nominees? Let’s hear ’em.