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IYA2009 Press Release 096
EMBARGOED UNTIL 0001 GMT, 19th February, 2009
Ref: RAS PN 09/6

Issued by:

Dr Robert Massey
Press and Policy Officer
Royal Astronomical Society
Burlington House
London W1J 0BQ
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


What convinced Galileo 400 years ago that the Earth orbits the Sun and not vice-versa?  How did one man make such a startling discovery, armed with just a 2 inch (5 cm) lens telescope?  

To mark the UK launch of the International Year of Astronomy (IYA 2009) in the UK, the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the Institute of Physics (IOP) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) have surveyed the UK public to ask what Galileo is remembered for... and most people don’t know.

In the realm of explorers, Marco Polo is known to have made it to China, Columbus is known and celebrated for discovering the Americas, while in earthly science Newton is remembered for his gravity-confirming apple and Einstein for his theory of relativity, but just how Galileo revolutionised the concept of our place in the Universe is little understood.

Professor Andy Fabian, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, said, “As the UK embarks on a year-long celebration of astronomy, we want to highlight the huge significance of Galileo’s early observations of the night sky. Astronomers in the 21st Century enjoy the legacy of the 400 years of work that followed, built on his pioneering discoveries.”

The results of the survey were announced at last night’s launch of the International Year of Astronomy, held at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, where hundreds gathered to celebrate the importance and wonder of modern astronomy.

The results show that nearly one third (29 per cent) of the UK is just as likely to associate the name Galileo with wine, fashion or a famous ship before associating him with astronomy.  Also of concern, almost three quarters of the UK (73 per cent) credit Galileo with erroneous discoveries, such as Neptune or the black hole at the centre of our Milky Way Galaxy, or simply don’t know what he discovered – the four large satellites of Jupiter.

Professor Ian Robson, the UK Chair for IYA 2009, said, “The UK is undertaking a massive drive to recruit scientists for the nation’s future prosperity and it is well understood that astronomy continues to inspire young minds and help them appreciate science.  In publishing the results of this survey we are not pointing a finger, just hoping to remind the UK how one man and one telescope changed the world forever and to encourage more people to look with awe and enthusiasm at the beautiful night sky.”

It was in 1609, exactly 400 years ago, that Galileo observed the Moons of Jupiter, now known as the Galilean Moons, which he recorded in his treatise, the Sidereus Nuncius, published in 1610.  The observation was very controversial as it proved that the Earth was not the only centre of movement in the Universe. It also lent support to the idea that the Earth moved around the Sun, a heretical belief which eventually led to Galileo’s imprisonment.

Guests at the UK launch event received a welcome speech from Lord Rees of Ludlow, the current Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, a planetarium show, a live link-up to the 2.0 metre Liverpool telescope on La Palma and a run-down of events during IYA 2009.


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Caption: Space scientist Dr Helen Walker with pupils from Deptford Green School, in the telescope dome at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. Dr Walker is giving away the first of 1000 free telescopes that will be distributed to UK secondary schools during the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009). This ‘Telescopes for Schools’ project is funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the Royal Astronomical Society. Image: (c) National Maritime Museum.

[NB: The pupils’ parents have given permission for this image to be used by the media].


Dr Robert Massey
Press and Policy Officer
Royal Astronomical Society
Burlington House
London W1J 0BQ
Tel: +44 (0)794 124 8035, +44 (0)20 7734 4582
E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Steve Owens
UK Co-ordinator, IYA 2009
C/o Glasgow Science Centre
50 Pacific Quay
Glasgow G51 1EA
Tel: +44 (0)141 420 5010 x.299
Mob: +44 (0)787 905 8120
E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Julia Maddock
Senior Press Officer
Polaris House
North Star Avenue
Tel: +44 (0)1793 442094
Mob: +44 (0)7901 514 975
E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it



The International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA 2009) will be a global celebration of astronomy and its contributions to society and culture. It is intended to stimulate worldwide interest not only in astronomy, but in science in general, with a particular slant towards young people.IYA 2009 will mark the 400th anniversary of the monumental leap forward that followed Galileo Galilei’s first use of the telescope for astronomical observations. In the UK the chair of IYA2009 is Professor Ian Robson, director of STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh, and the co-ordinator for IYA 2009 activities is Steve Owens, also a UKATC employee.

IYA: UK home page


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.

RAS home page


The Institute of Physics (IOP) is a scientific membership organisation devoted to increasing the understanding and application of physics. It has an extensive worldwide membership (currently around 34000) and is a leading communicator of physics with all audiences from specialists through government to the general public. Its publishing company, IOP Publishing, is a world leader in scientific publishing and the electronic dissemination of physics. 

IOP home page


The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) ensures the UK retains its leading place on the world stage by delivering world-class science; accessing and hosting international facilities; developing innovative technologies; and increasing the socio-economic impact of its research through effective knowledge exchange partnerships. The Council has a programme of public engagement to inspire students, teachers and the public with UK science.

STFC has a broad science portfolio including Astronomy, Astrophysics and Space Science. It gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and the European Space Agency (ESA). It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory.

STFC is a partner in the UK space programme, coordinated by the British National Space Centre.

STFC home page


The Liverpool Telescope (LT) is the world’s largest and most sophisticated robotic telescope.  It has a 2.0 meter primary mirror, and is owned and operated by Liverpool John Moores University with operational funding from STFC.  The telescope is located at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on the Spanish island of La Palma in the Canary Islands at a height of 2363 metres above sea level.  This location allows the telescope to take advantage of the location’s clear weather, dark skies and low atmospheric turbulence.

The telescope normally operates in a fully robotic mode, meaning that it is not being supervised by human operators either at the observatory site or back in the UK.  This allows it to do different kinds of science than conventional telescopes, using complex automated computer systems to focus on transient and variable events in the universe such as Supernovae and Gamma Ray Bursts within minutes of their discovery.

Liverpool Telescope home page


Research conducted by GfK NOP. 1002 Nationally represented UK adults aged 16+ were interviewed by telephone between 6th and 8th February, 2009.