2009 to be International Year of Astronomy, UN declares

Canadians looking to get an early jump on next year's holiday shopping might want to add something to their list: a telescope.

Canadian science enthusiastslooking to get an early jump on next year's holiday shopping might want to add something to their list: a telescope.

The United Nations on Thursday named 2009 the International Year of Astronomy, to mark the 400th anniversary of Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei's first observations using a telescope.

The UN 62nd General Assembly made the proclamation Thursday morning in Paris, after the resolution was submitted by Italy, Galileo's home country.

The International Astronomical Union and UNESCO will jointly run the initiative with 99 nations, including Canada, participating.

In Canada, plans are already underway, according to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, with amateur and professional astronomers forming a national co-ordinating committee to organize "a year-long slate of programs to bring astronomy to Canadians."

A number of major international space projects should also be underway that year. NASA is scheduled to launch its Kepler telescope in February, the space agency's first attempt to send a probe into space that will be capable of finding Earth-size and smaller planets around other stars.

The European Space Agency also has plans in 2009 to launch a roving laboratory to Mars. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic service, which plans to offer commercial suborbital space flights, is scheduled to launch that year as well.

The focus of the UN program, however, will be on astronomy for the masses.

"The IYA2009 is, first and foremost, an activity for the citizens of planet Earth," the UN said in a statement. "It aims to convey the excitement of personal discovery, the pleasure of sharing fundamental knowledge about the universe and our place in it, and the merits of the scientific method."

Each year the UN proclaims a number of resolutions to connect certain calendar years with global issues and activities. In four separate declarations, the UN has proclaimed 2008 as the international year of sanitation, languages, planet Earth and the potato.