The Global Impact of IYA2009: 100 Hours in April

9 July 2009

By Douglas Isbell (U.S. Single Point of Contact for IYA2009)

It's a fair thing to ask: why declare an international year of science at all?  Or one dedicated solely to astronomy, when its community already does so much outreach to the public and the media?

The emotional answer that I usually give is that every living thing on Earth shares the night sky and the daily benefits of our reliable parent star, the Sun.  We need to encourage everyone to remember this, enjoy viewing them and thinking about their realities more often, and preserve their beauty for future generations.

The international planning effort and greater "architecture" of cornerstone projects of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009) are yielding a variety of positive outcomes and impressive accomplishments.  But scientists-and our donors and funding agencies!-like numbers to back up such subjective statements.

Let's take a look at the first major global event-driven cornerstone project of IYA2009, the "100 Hours of Astronomy" weekend from April 2-5, including some hard numbers on outcomes.

Led by Mike Simmons, founder and president of Astronomers Without Borders (see and a 35-year advocate for astronomy outreach at Griffith Observatory, Mount Wilson, and many other places in the greater Los Angeles area, the concept for "100 Hours of Astronomy" was deceivingly simple: a nearly continuous string of public events, star parties, and telescope viewing of all sorts around the globe for one four-day period. 

However, start with the complexity of picking a date.  To involve the most people globally, the dates needed to be reasonable for both hemispheres, with kids generally still in school, and to be long enough to foil at least one or two nights of poor weather.  It also required a weekend with decent lunar conditions-i.e., relatively dark skies-and at least one more engaging object to view (in this case, the ringed planet, Saturn).

Getting a bit more challenging, eh?

Add in the desire for some sort of global kick-off event and ongoing Web-connected events to maintain a global feel, plus a central registry of events, and some common branding materials, and suddenly the job is a lot tougher.

The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia was a natural fit for the global opening, given the well-timed arrival of some of Galileo's original hardware in a first-time appearance outside of Italy.  And the IYA2009 central office at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) executive produced an extremely successful live 24-hour Webcast within "100 Hours," dubbed "Around the World in 80 Telescopes," led by Douglas Pierce-Price, that drew 150,000 viewers.

How did the global star parties do?

According to numbers reported to me by Mike, the "100 Hours" Web site (see received registration information for 2,416 events around the world.  It's generally acknowledged by everyone involved that many more events occurred without registering, but let's stick with these.  Specifically, 914 events filed a report, and about 100 reports were eliminated due to odd or missing data in their filings, leaving 818.  So feel free to mentally multiply most of the following numbers by three to represent the total that took time to register.

The total attendance reported at the 818 events was 319,546.  This does not include the largest claimed audience during "100 Hours": several million people for a radio show in Pakistan hosted over the air and via the Internet in English by well-known local amateur astronomer Hasaan Ghazzali!

Other event attendee totals ranged from one to 12,000.  The reported global average was 391 people, with a median of 100. 

Twenty-three events reported attendance of 3,000 people or more, in a wide variety of countries: Russia, Lithuania, New Zealand, US, India, Brazil, Argentina, China, Germany, Romania, Puerto Rico and France, in order of the largest event reported in each country. 

The greatest attendance reported at any event in the US was more than 9,000 at an event with 22 telescopes for public viewing at a U.S. Naval Observatory open house in Washington, DC.  Next was the Virginia Living Museum with 5,000-plus people attending a variety of events including observing night and day, planetarium programs and family campouts over the four days.  There were 18 events in the US with reported attendance of 500 or more, all of which had telescope viewing.

In fact, viewing through small telescopes was featured at 83% of the events (677), with a total of 3,839 telescopes available for public viewing.  The event with the largest number of telescopes was in China, a reported 120 telescopes used by 4,000 public visitors.  Puerto Rico had an event with 70 telescopes used by 3,500 people (way beyond China if considered per capita!), while France had an event with 50 telescopes used by 3,000 people.

What did all these people look at?  Hard to say for sure, but Saturn and the Moon were surely #1 and #2, based on my experience during this time period.

These are impressive numbers from almost any vantage point.  And based on many communications and other reports among the 140 national ‘SPoCs' for IYA2009, we feel strongly that more than two million people worldwide got a taste of astronomy during the "100 Hours." 

Inspired by this success, the IYA2009 program has declared that October 22-24 will be the "Galilean Nights," designed to get people out in public places like sidewalks, parks and shopping plazas, observing many of the same objects as Galileo: Jupiter, the Moon, Saturn, and the Pleiades.

Chaired by Catherine Moloney of the United Kingdom  (, a 13-member working group is putting together a more detailed plan for a Web site, shared information products and event registration, to start.

Catherine is a science communicator with Master's degrees in Science Communication from Imperial College London and Physics with Space Science and Technology from the University of Leicester.  She recently completed six months working at the Education and Public Outreach Department at ESO.  Prior to her work at ESO she was a technical specialist for three years on a satellite communication project for the British armed forces, worked with the science communication group at the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and also spent three years working at the National Space Centre.

For a list of other cornerstone working group members, and details on plans and resources as they emerge, see

Help us spread the word and make the Galilean Nights the most popular event ever to observe Jupiter, our solar system's largest planet and its Galilean moons!

Organisational Associates:

The International Year of Astronomy 2009 is endorsed by the United Nations and the International Council of Science.