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IYA2009 Press Release 0963

Ref.: RAS PN 09/63
Date: 11th December 2009
For immediate release

Issued by:
Dr Robert Massey
Press and Policy Officer
Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
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In a fitting finale for the International Year of Astronomy (IYA 2009), astronomers and archaeologists will celebrate the five millennia of astronomical heritage at Stonehenge, the most sophisticated stone circle in the world and amongst Europe’s most important Neolithic sites. The attractions include a free public astronomy exhibition and expert-led tours of the site and surrounding landscape.

Activity on the world famous Stonehenge site dates from earlier than 3000 BCE and the monument was constructed over several phases lasting for more than 1500 years. The purpose of the site varied over time and is still a matter for debate, but it has a strong astronomical connection, making it an appropriate place for the UK IYA2009 closing event. The stones align with the positions of the Sun and Moon as they rise and set, for example at the solstices and during years when the tilt of the Moon’s orbit around the Earth makes it travel to extreme northern and southern positions in the sky (described as a ‘major standstill’).

The celebration begins with the opening of the ‘From the Earth to the Universe’ (FETTU) exhibition alongside the Stonehenge visitor centre. This free exhibition, running from 16th December to 3rd January 2010 (except on 25th and 26th December), features a series of stunning images of objects across the Universe, from stars and planets to nebulae and galaxies; all made using telescopes on the ground and in space. FETTU aims to show the public how astronomy has developed in the 400 years since Galileo turned his telescope towards the night sky, let alone in the more than 5000 years since the first stages of the construction of Stonehenge.

On 21st December is the winter solstice, when in northern hemisphere countries the Sun reaches its lowest apparent position in the sky and the number of hours of daylight reach a minimum (the so-called shortest day). The stones of the Stonehenge monument not only famously align with the rising position of the Sun around the summer solstice (described as the longest day of the year) but also with its setting position at the winter solstice.

The site also has possible connections with the Moon, in years when the tilt of the Moon’s orbit around the Earth makes it travel to extreme northern and southern positions in the sky (periods described as major standstills).

In the run up to the solstice, from 16th to 19th December leading specialists will be on hand to offer public tours of the site and surrounding area. These will be available during the day to any visitors who have purchased a normal site admission ticket.

The expert guides include archaeologists, Andrew Lawson, Julian Richards, Mike Allen and Julie Gardner, archaeoastronomer Clive Ruggles and astronomers Mark Bailey, Mike Edmunds and Derek McNally and IYA2009 UK chair Ian Robson. Some of the guides are involved in the Stonehenge Riverside project conducting new excavations in the area over the last five years and others are members of the Astronomical Heritage Committee of the Royal Astronomical Society.


On 16th December accredited members of the press are invited to attend the media launch for the exhibition in the context of IYA2009. The launch event will include a briefing on Stonehenge and its significance to astronomy by a panel made of the expert guides followed by a tour of the site and exhibition.

The briefing starts at 11 am and will be held in the Stonehenge Visitor Centre (see for details). The site is 3 km (2 miles) west of the town of Amesbury, at the junction of the A303 and A344/A360 roads.

Please contact Steve Owens or Mike Edmunds if you plan to attend the briefing.


Professor Mike Edmunds
University of Cardiff
Tel: +44 (0)2920 754384
Mob: +44 (0)776 332 4070
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Steve Owens
UK Co-ordinator, IYA2009
c/o Glasgow Science Centre
50 Pacific Quay
Glasgow G51 1EA
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)141 420 5010 x. 299
Mob: +44 (0)771 772 0479
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Winter Solstice Event

Stonehenge Riverside Project

From Earth to the Universe

English Heritage: Stonehenge

IYA 2009: UK home page


Images of the site as it appears at the winter sunset and how it might have looked when in use can be found in a password-protected area of the RAS website at

Username: press
Password: astronomy



IYA2009 is endorsed by UNESCO and is now supported by 135 countries under the leadership of the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

All through the year, thousands of professional and amateur astronomers will be working with the public as part of a global effort to promote astronomy and its contribution to science and culture. A series of innovative projects will encourage public engagement, from observing sessions at observatories to online blogs, photographic exhibitions and the campaign to combat light pollution.

In the UK, IYA2009 is led by volunteers in amateur astronomical societies, universities, industry, museums and science centres and supported by the Royal Astronomical Society (, the Institute of Physics ( and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (


The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.