In 2008, as in every year, the Earth made one complete revolution around the Sun. During that time, we enjoyed spectacular solar and lunar eclipses (February and August), conjunctions of Venus with Jupiter and Mercury, occultation of planets and stars by the Moon and numerous meteor showers. Other exciting events during the past year were that astronomers continued to discover numerous extra-solar planets orbiting remote stars in the Milky Way, and as a breakthrough, one such planet was even photographed for the first time.
In 2009, we celebrate the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first observations of the universe through a telescope. In honor of this event, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the United Nations have proclaimed 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy to spread awareness of astronomy's contributions to society and culture, stimulate young people's interest in science, portray astronomy as a global peaceful endeavor and nourish a scientific outlook
Astronomy is truly an international science. Every culture in the world has marveled at the Sun, Moon and the stars. Since the very beginning of the human race, we have looked up at the night sky and wondered at what we saw. Astronomy has fuelled the debate on some of the biggest philosophical questions: who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Today, astronomers and researchers routinely work together to understand the cosmos using facilities scattered around the world, as well as orbiting above it and beyond. The main objective of IYA-2009 is to expose as many as possible of the world's 6.8 billion citizens to the universe's wonders.
The Earth is at perihelion (its closest point to the Sun) on 4 January. On 7 January midnight, the Moon passes directly in front of Pleiades or the Seven Sisters star-cluster and occults it, which will be an exciting moment to see through a pair of binoculars. Mercury is at its greatest elongation eastwards from the Sun on 4 January, so we have a chance to see this elusive little planet immediately after sunset. By 20 January, Mercury is at inferior conjunction?almost directly in front of the Sun.
Venus is now a brilliant Evening Star in the south-western sky at dusk. On Friday 30 January, the new crescent Moon will appear directly above Venus. Mars is rising less than an hour before sunrise. So we won't be able to see the red planet until summer this year. The giant planet Jupiter is behind the Sun on 24 January. We may just get a last glimpse of it at the start of January, low in the south-west immediately after sunset. Saturn is rising in the middle of the evening, and it's well up in the southern sky by dawn.
The Quadrantid meteor-shower produces a good display of meteors every year during the first week of January. This year, the peak is expected on 3 January producing one Quadrantid every minute or two. The best numbers will probably be seen in the early hours of that morning.