To infinity and beyond

Dossier ~ Wednesday 28th January 2009

The International Year of Astronomy was inaugurated on 16 January 2009, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first use of the telescope. Off we go, with Tintin, to explore the heavens!

Mysteries of the universe

"I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn't learn something from him"; "Doubt is the father of invention"; "Eppur, si muove" (And yet she moves)  -  words of wisdom from none other than Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Considered the father of modern physics and astronomy, this Italian, born in the town of Pisa, assembled a telescope in 1609, using a set of lenses patented a year earlier by the Dutchman, Hans Lippershey. At the outset, this "device enabling one to approach objects at a distance" was conceived for military purposes. The arrangement of lenses made it possible to watch army movements on the battlefield. Being a peaceful man endowed with common sense, Galileo would turn his telescope towards the stars.

The trials of Galileo

So what would Galileo discover thanks to the telescope? The first things he saw were craters on the surface of the Moon. He was the first person to observe four satellites orbiting Jupiter, which are known to this day as the ?Galilean Moons?. He also perceived the rotation of the sun. While today you only need to set foot in a toyshop to find a telescope, in 1609 using a telescope was unheard of and represented a quantum leap in science. Galileo's discoveries, however, were destined to bring him trouble as well as praise. Around 1616, Galileo came out in support of the theory, first put forward in 1543 by Nicholas Copernicus, that the earth did not stand still, but instead orbited the sun, and not the contrary. Galileo dismissed all doubts, declaring that Copernicus was right. Unfortunately, this theory contradicted the official position of the Catholic Church.

"And yet she moves..."

In 1616 Copernicus's book propounding his theory was banned. Galileo went ahead regardless and published his groundbreaking work in astronomy, taking up and developing the theory that the sun is at the centre of the solar system, and the planets orbit around the sun. In 1633, the Pope hauled Galileo in front of the courts of the Inquisition. After a trial lasting 20 days, Galileo renounced his theories. He was forced to get down on his knees in front of the judges and legend has it that at the moment he got back up to his feet he exclaimed, alluding to the earth's orbit around the sun, "and yet she moves!" Whether this really happened is uncertain, but his remark has come down through the ages. In the case between science versus obscurantism, Galileo was certainly not the only victim. There is the classic example of the Englishman, Charles Darwin, author of the book On the Origin of Species (1859), in which he explained his theory of evolution. Even today, his findings are hotly contested by the obscurantist camp. Despite his trials and tribulations, and the fact that he renounced his theory, Galileo is recognised as the founder of modern astronomy, paving the way for subsequent major discoveries concerning the planets and their moons, the Milky Way and, beyond that, the entire universe.

Astronomy as a starting point

It is important to understand the definition of astronomy, which is namely the science of "the constitution, relative positions, and motions of the heavenly bodies" (Oxford English Dictionary 2008). Astronomy is an essential tool in preparing to travel to other planets, but this is not its only purpose. The Americans, Russians, Europeans, Chinese and Indians are all currently involved in projects to return to the Moon (man first set foot on the Moon in 1969), before looking further afield to the planet Mars. Astronomy enables the calculation of planetary positions which can be used to predict ideal conditions for travel, such as the moment in orbit when two planets are closest to one another. It can also be used to gauge the relief of a planet's surface so as to find the optimum place for landing a spacecraft, and the composition of atmospheres to which astronauts will be exposed. Astronomy is not concerned, however, with transportation issues such as the construction of engines, living conditions aboard a spacecraft and other important aspects of space exploration.

2009 - Year of Astronomy

Many important and breathtaking discoveries have been based on the findings of Galileo. Telescopes have evolved and become more and more sophisticated, resulting in the magnificent devices we see in The Shooting Star and at the Sprodj Atomic Research Centre in Syldavia (Destination Moon, Explorers on the Moon). Since then we've witnessed the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, which was put into orbit around the earth in 1990. Every day it beams back images as well as providing information used to refine our knowledge of space. For example, we now know that the Milky Way revolves around its axis at a speed of 965,000 kph. This is an important discovery, as the speed of the Milky Way is linked to the force of gravity exerted by the sun, and lets us predict with confidence that the earth is very safely attached to its star !

Frank de Winne invited on 6 month space project !

Europe is not being left behind when it comes to exploring the universe. The European Space Agency (ESA), led by Jean-Jacques Dordain, has launched 30 research projects supported by a budget of 10 billion euros over a 3-year period. The most recent achievement was the appointment of the Belgian, Frank de Winne, as the first European commander of the International Space Station (ISS). His journey will begin in May 2009 and he will serve for a period of six months. "During the course of my mission," explains Frank de Winne, "I will conduct and take part in a number of important experiments, for which I'm spending long months training at ?Star City' in Russia." That won't leave him much time to celebrate Chinese New Year (26 January), but that won't stop us from wishing all our visitors involved in this celebration, a Happy New Year !

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