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International Year of Astronomy Claims Record Numbers of Citizen Stargazers

The International Year of Astronomy (IYA) 2009 is the biggest public science outreach event ever, with more than 815 million people in 148 countries taking part, says its concluding report released yesterday at the Joint European and National Astronomy Meeting in Lisbon. Organizers say its decision to focus IYA2009’s €18 million budget on communicating astronomy to the public, rather than splitting funding between outreach and research, and appointing a global coordinator to oversee the project, is a successful model that should be adopted by future public science outreach events.

Since 1959, the United Nations has been sponsoring International Year events to throw the spotlight on topics of global importance. But previous science International Years haven’t managed to engage the public to the level that IYA2009 has achieved, says project coordinator Pedro Russo of the International Astronomical Union.

“The World Year of Physics 2005 and the International Year of Planet Earth in 2008 involved both public outreach events and supporting new research, but this split the attention and funding, making it difficult to create an impact in either area,” Russo says. The International Astronomical Union decided from the outset to take a different approach with IYA2009: The sole aim was to communicate the importance and excitement of astronomy to the general public. “Given how many people from around the world that IYA2009 has reached, it was clearly a very good approach,” says Russo.

Having a central go-to contact in Russo was vital to enable developing countries to participate in IYA2009, says astronomer Ian Robson of the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, who headed up the United Kingdom’s involvement in the project. “You need a global coordinator to fight for and to distribute funding and resources for developing countries,” says Robson. Instead of starting from scratch, countries could use resources that were already in place for the 12 so-called cornerstone projects, he says.

Of the cornerstone projects, Russo thinks the Galileoscope project—in which more than 180,000 low-cost 70mm telescopes were distributed to 96 countries, including 17 developing countries—will be IYA2009’s greatest legacy. “Most of these small telescopes are now in classrooms, including remote schools in developing countries, and will be used by many generations of pupils,” he says.

Many other projects have continued beyond 2009, including She is an Astronomer , which is raising awareness of the fact that very few astronomy professors are female, and the worldwide exhibition From Earth to the Universe. The exhibition showcases astronomical images in unexpected locations around the world, such as metro stations, airports, shopping malls, and prisons.