Photo credit: Babak Tafreshi/TWAN.

The International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009) was a watershed for astronomy outreach, awareness and education.  Astronomy has always fascinated the public, and web sites like NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day are among the most widely visited in the world.  But IYA2009 launched new programs, brought astronomy outreach to new areas and recruited participants like never before.

IYA2009 was just the beginning.  The party was never meant to end when the clock struck midnight on 31 December.  Many of the programs that got a start during 2009 are continuing.  But just as important, many got a big boost during the year as well.

Astronomers Without Borders (AWB) was founded two years before IYA2009 began and it was already doing well for a start-up organization before the 2009 groundswell began.  But an email message from IYA2009 Coordinator Pedro Russo changed that - and my life - in ways I could never have guessed.  Maybe it's a good thing I couldn't see the future or I might have hit the Delete key!

Pedro asked if I would co-chair the IYA2009 Cornerstone Project 100 Hours of Astronomy with Douglas Pierce-Price of ESO.  Douglas would run the landmark live 24-hour 80 Telescopes Around the World webcast from observatories worldwide while I would focus on amateur participation.  I already had more than 35 years experience organizing amateur outreach efforts behind me, but of course never on this scale.  No one did.  But I'd done international work before, and AWB was a growing worldwide community, so it seemed like a reasonable match.

The 24-hour Global Star Party that we created turned out to be like nothing the world had ever seen.  With thousands of events in over 100 countries, tens of thousands amateur astronomers eagerly taking their telescopes to the streets and as many as a million people looking through telescopes in just one night, a new standard was set for amateur outreach events.  And there were some very important lessons learned along the way.

Anyone used to organizing public star parties knows how the fickle nature of people can interfere.  Amateurs are passionate about their hobby and sharing it with others but there are always other things to do.  The public is interested in astronomy but when if it's cold, hot, a favorite TV program is on or a million other things that are part of daily life interfere that neat-sounding astronomy event takes a back seat.  Making it the event to attend - for both amateurs and the public - is critical.  But how do you attract more people than the usual crowd you get every time you set up?

By being part of something bigger than ever.  The amateur community in different countries was brought together through online technology for the first time on a large scale.  With a global identity as one, huge event rather than a series of individual events, 100 Hours of Astronomy created more buzz than ever.  Local astronomy clubs could tout the fact that they were part of a big international event like the world had never seen.  Local media around the world took notice and gave a lot more exposure to the clubs, and that brought the crowds.  It wasn't big media that did it but thousands of newspapers and TV stations reaching into nearby homes that reached the masses.  Social media going mainstream.

Galilean Nights was quickly created as a new Cornerstone Project to follow on 100 Hours of Astronomy's success and keep the amateur community involved.  But within three months IYA2009 was over.  What would its legacy be for amateurs?

I'd been consumed by the massive effort of 100 Hours of Astronomy and the effort start AWB suffered as a result.  There just wasn't time to do both.  But the community that we created for 100 Hours of Astronomy was incorporated into AWB and the energy created by discussions, contacts between countries and more were captured and harnessed.  And there was still plenty of energy being generated.  Amateurs felt empowered by having a worldwide, cohesive community for the first time, and new international programs I'd never imagined began to sprout as they interacted.  AWB has continued to grow at an incredible rate ever since, going well beyond simply connecting people through our common passion for astronomy.  AWB's motto - One People, One Sky - is being shown beyond any doubt!

As April 2010 approached, marking one year since 100 Hours of Astronomy, it was clear a follow-up was needed.  After considerable discussion among AWB's community - questioning whether it should be smaller or larger, what it should focus on and more - Global Astronomy Month born.  The first GAM was a success but nothing close to the big observing events of IYA2009.  It was hastily put together as 2010 began, taking shape as we went, and lots of people were just burned out from a year of events.  But this time the future could be seen in the enthusiasm for GAM 2010, and this year it's an entirely different story.

Long before GAM 2011 was even announced word began circulating about programs for the new annual event.  Organizations had taken notice and wanted to be part of the celebration.  Organizers wanted to partner with AWB to create new programs that didn't have a platform in more traditional settings.  Interest has been huge!

Is it because the IYA2009 experience showed us all what we could accomplish working together?  I'm sure that's at least part of it.  But IYA2009, GAM 2010 and AWB itself have all shown us that there is plenty of creativity, innovation and energy for different types of programs.  Global Astronomy Month provides a platform for new programs to take a bow at center stage and get a good boost for the rest of the year.  AWB provides a partner with infrastructure and a ready audience for new programs.  And the granddaddy of them all - IYA2009 and the amateur's big events - launched this new, global movement of amateurs doing far more than ever before.

I sometimes wonder how things might have turned out if I hadn't received that first message from Pedro.  Or if I had just hit the Delete key to save myself a year of working the equivalent of two full-time jobs as a volunteer.  I would have spent 2009 building AWB to take advantage of IYA2009, as I'd planned.  But without 100 Hours of Astronomy, and my central role that allowed me to follow up within AWB, where would AWB be now?  I'll never know the answer to this question and the others above.  All I know is that the astronomy community has become a global presence, and that amateurs have a more prominent place in it than ever before.  Whatever the path from IYA2009 to GAM 2010 to GAM 2011, it's been a heady journey, and one that everyone is very happy has taken place.


Blogger: Mike Simmons is the Founder and President of Astronomers Without Borders and was co-chair of the 100 Hours of Astronomy Cornerstone Project of IYA2009.


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