Observations

IAU 28th General Assembly farewells Beijing and says ‘Aloha’ to Hawaii for 2015.

Members of the IAU vote on the resolutions which included determining ‘au’ the astronomical unit, photo T. Stevenson
Members of the IAU vote on the resolutions which included determining ‘au’ the astronomical unit, photo T. Stevenson

Friday 31 August, with a full Moon over hazy Beijing, three thousand astronomers, who have participated in the 28th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), left the China Convention Centre (CNCC) satisfied that this had been a memorable occasion. This second week focussed on communicating astronomy, light pollution, historical instruments and exciting areas of astronomical research. The astronomical unit was re-determined and a Near Earth Object (NEO) early warning system given the go ahead were just two of the many outcomes.

Japanese astronomer Kazuhisa Kamegai gave a moving talk about how the Tokyo University of Science has taken astronomy to areas affected in the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.  His graduate students have been taking telescopes and astronomy presentations to areas with temporary accommodation, into cafes, hospital wards and on top of highrise buildings in Tokyo.  For some this has bought hope, a connection with nature and something positive to focus on.

As part of the ‘Communicating astronomy  for scientists’ special session I presented a paper with Nick Lomb describing how astronomers can work with Museums and heritage collections to tell their story, using the Sydney Observatory/Powerhouse Museum collections. This included research undertaken with the University of Sydney on the Astrographic Catalogue and the instruments held in our collection from that project.

Sydney-based astronomer Bryan Gaensler presented the history, latest known and mysterious magnetic fields in our Universe currently being researched in Australia . By reviewing solar cycle records since 1645 Nat Gopalswamy, staff scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, predicted that solar activity may be on the decline for some time. This will be disappointing news for Sydney City Skywatchers many of whon are regular observers of solar activity.

The Gruber Prize for combatting light pollution is presented to Malcolm Smith by Bob Parks, Executive Director, Dark Sky Association.
The Gruber Prize for combatting light pollution is presented to Malcolm Smith by Bob Parks, Executive Director, Dark Sky Association.

As a member of SOLIS  (the Sydney Outdoor Lighting Improvement Society) the issue of light pollution, its impact on astronomy and humanity, was another area of interest. Malcolm Smith, astronomer at Cerro Tolelo Observatory, La Serena, Chile  was awarded the Gruber Foundation prize for his work over many years to draw attention to light pollution and promote a dark sky environment.

Detail showing the celestial globe in 1/3 scale model of Su Song's water clock dating back to 1092 AD.
Detail showing the celestial globe in 1/3 scale model of Su Song’s water clock dating back to 1092 AD.

In China astronomy has been developing at an impressive rate. Local Chinese astronomers have informed us of their latest research, modern facilities, global networks and their first dedicated astronomy satellite, expected to be launched in 2015.  The history of astronomy is also an area of great pride and the National Astronomical Observatories of China have exhibited a 1:3 scale model of Su Song’s water-powered clock, built in the eleventh century and possibly the first astronomical clock, and a talented embroider created celestial images.

At the end of Thursday the second General Assembly meeting was held for members to vote on resolutions.  It was agreed that the astronomical unit is exactly 149 597 870 700 m and the symbol  ‘au’ will now be used internationally. You can find out more about the other resolutions, all of which were passed, in the IAU newspaper. The closing ceremony was a spectacle of traditional Chinese dance, a contemporary jazz band, and the handover of the IAU flag to the next host nation. Hawaii is the next location for the IAU 29th General Assembly in 2015.

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