New Year's day was a special one this year. As you counted down the last few seconds until 2009, hopefully you were aware that there was a leap second added at 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). This leap second was the 24th leap second was added since 1972 to make up for the Earth's slowing rotation. Without leap seconds our clocks would not be adjusted to where the sun is in the sky. Imagine this growing difference when it starts to add up to a few hours!
An interesting start to what is hopefully a great year, because this year is the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009). It marks the 400th anniversary of the first time a telescope was used to look up at the sky. This was done by Galileo Galilei when he heard that Hans Lippershey, a Dutch optician, had created a device that could magnify distant objects. Galileo discovered many things very quickly after looking up, such as Saturn's rings, Jupiter's four biggest moons, the phases of Venus and Mercury, as well as many other discoveries that showed everything in our solar system does not orbit the Earth.
All across the world 135 countries are participating in IYA2009, hosting various events throughout the year to raise awareness about astronomy's contributions to culture, science, our day-to-day lives, and to show just how interesting it really is.
2005 was the International Year of Physics. It went almost unnoticed by the general public. Only a pair of eyes are needed to view the night sky while physics can require a lot of theoretical mathematics and mind-bending concepts. It is hoped that IYA2009 will be the exact opposite and be a great success, since it could inspire hundreds of thousands of amateur astronomers across the globe.
A few of the major goals of IYA2009 are to increase scientific awareness and literacy, promote widespread access to new knowledge and observing experiences, provide gender and racial equality among scientists, and provide a modern image of science and scientists (science doesn't have to be stale and boring).
You can find the IYA2009 website at "http://www.astronomy2009.org/" or the Canadian IYA2009 site at "http://www.astronomy2009.ca/."
Throughout the year, make sure to keep your eyes and ears open for any events happening here on the Island hosted by either the Athena Community Astronomy Club or the Charlottetown Astronomy Club. There will most likely be some special meetings and viewings where you can get the opportunity to look through a telescope at the beautiful night sky.
If you do get out to take a look up at the sky, with a telescope or simply your eyes, here is what you can look for in this month's sky.
To start the month off is the Quadrantid meteor shower on Jan. 3. The Quadrantid meteor shower can produce upwards of 100 meteors per hour but are seldom observed because the shower only lasts a few hours. To view them just get comfortable (if that is possible in the cold), lean back, and look up between 2am and sunrise. If you trace back to where the meteors come from you will see that most of them appear to radiate from somewhere near the handle of the Big Dipper.
The full moon occurs on Jan. 10 and will become new again on Jan. 26.
The best time to catch Mercury will be early in the month. Look low in the western horizon about half an hour after sunset. There will be a very bright "star" near the horizon, that's Jupiter. Mercury will be hiding just below Jupiter. This elusive planet will be best visible on Jan. 4 but should be visible a few days before and after that date.
Venus will appear at its highest position this month on Jan. 14 in the southwestern sky after sunset. It will be the second brightest object in the night sky, the brightest being the moon.
Until next month, just look up!
Astronomers that study gravity have figured out that they can use PlayStation 3's for their computer simulations. They hooked up sixteen PlayStation 3's together to run their simulations of "gravity waves". Gravity waves are ripples in the space around us and were predicted by Einstein. If these simulations were run on a supercomputer it would cost $5000 just to run it once! Read more about this by searching "black holes PlayStation 3" at www.UniverseToday.com. PlayStations aren't just great for games, they're great for science too!