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Lights in the skies

By Massie Santos Ballon
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 19:28:00 01/23/2009

Filed Under: Science (general), Astronomy

TWO years ago the United Nations decreed that 2009 would be the International Year of Astronomy. IYA2009 marks the 400th anniversary of the first time astronomer Galileo Galilei, considered among other things the ?Father of Modern Science,? used a telescope to study the heavens and its contents.

The opening ceremonies of IYA2009 were held in Paris, France on Jan. 15 and 16, and one student from Mandaluyong-based Rizal Technological University was lucky enough to receive one of the invitations to attend the event.

The Philippines will launch its own activities for IYA2009 on Jan. 19.

Over 130 countries, including the Philippines, have activities lined up to introduce people to the joys of looking up to the skies.

Astronomy convention

One of the local events being tied in to IYA2009 is the Philippine Astronomy Convention, which gathers professional and amateur astronomers around the country. Aside from poster sessions and exhibits, the convention is expected to end with a public stargazing session. This year?s convention is scheduled for Feb. 15 at the Rizal Technological University.

The main theme of IYA2009 is ?The Universe, yours to discover.? One of the worldwide activities planned is a build-your-own-telescope project. Known as the Galileoscope, the low-power telescope is designed to be built and used by schoolchildren. The project designers hope to receive orders for at least 100,000 telescopes to be distributed worldwide over the course of the year.

Another worldwide activity meant to get people studying the skies is the 100 Hours of Astronomy event, scheduled to take place over four days during early April. Though there seem to be no plans to get into the Guinness World Records, IYA2009 organizers hope to give as many people as possible around the world the chance to look through a telescope during this time period.

To see the night skies though, astronomers need darkness. One of the global projects planned for IYA2009, a photo contest, aims to make people more aware of how having too many lights on can affect one?s ability to stargaze.

Those interested in entering the competition must have to take a photo that shows both the Earth and the sky, and has objects from the night sky such as the moon or stars against a notable landmark.

This may not be as easy as it sounds; the International Astronomical Union has observed that artificial lights in some places are bright enough to keep entire countries from seeing the skies overhead. Because of this development, another activity scheduled for IYA2009 involves simultaneously turning off the lights in key cities so that people can see the skies when they look up.

Light pollution

It?s worth noting though that light pollution also affects the land and seas, not just the sky. Artificial lighting stresses the surrounding ecological systems, disrupting predator/prey relationships and changing avian migration patterns. In a study in the December 2008 issue of the journal Geocarto International, an international team of researchers found that light pollution also affected coral reproduction, which is tied to moonlight.

Another study released online Jan. 7 in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment shows that a specific type of light pollution they call ?polarized light pollution? can cause animals to think they?ve come upon a body of water when they may actually be in an urban area. The confusion may be caused by dark, shiny surfaces such as oil spills, cars or buildings that reflect polarized light. The mistake could lead to animals getting run over by vehicles, not to mention affecting their searches for food and mates.

E-mail the author at massie@massie.com.

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