Since the ancient times people have observed stars and wondered about their place in the universe. Some early civilisations considered the Sun as the giver of life and worshipped it, while for other cultures, crops were planted according to the celestial calendar (e.g. phases of the moon).
In addition, the writings tell us that around 3000 B.C., the Babylonians believed that the positions and motions of celestial bodies influenced the fate of human life.
Although without scientific basis, this astrology stimulated the study and recording of celestial bodies and phenomena.
The invention of the telescope in early 17th century revolutionalised astronomy, which is considered the oldest among all sciences.
1609-2009: 400th anniversary of the first Galileo Galilei telescope
The year 2009 has been declared International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009) by the United Nations in its 62nd General Assembly.
It was a global celebration of the 400th anniversary of the first use of the telescope for astronomical observations by Galileo Galilei, an Italian, who in 1609 conducted optical observations which lead to his discovery of the four largest satellites of Jupiter, named the Galilean moons in his honour.
The aim of the IYA2009 was to stimulate worldwide interest, especially among young people, in astronomy and science under the central theme “The Universe, Yours to Discover.”
IYA2009 events and activities promoted a greater appreciation of the inspirational aspects of astronomy that embody an invaluable shared resource that is the sky, for all nations.
Progress and challenges
Astronomy is a branch of physics that involves the study celestial objects (comets, satellites, planets, stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies) and phenomena beyond the earth’s atmosphere.
It is one of the oldest basic Sciences and has made huge progress since Galileo’s findings particularly in the last few decades.
At the time of Galileo, people only knew about the existence of our own galaxy-- the Milky Way but today it is known that our universe is made up of billions of galaxies that are about 13.7 billion years old.
At the time of Galileo, people had no means to tell whether there were other solar systems in the universe unlike today where the existence of more than 200 planets around other stars in the Milky Way has made astronomers understand about the origin of life.
During Galileo time, people studied the sky using optical telescopes however currently the Universe is observed from Earth and Space (using Rockets, Balloons and Satellites) in all electromagnetic spectral bands from radio waves (using radio telescopes) to very high energy gamma-rays (using Cherenkov telescopes).
More so astronomers discovered that the current universe is expanding and accelerating. The overall density of the universe was measured to be roughly 9.9 × 10−30 grams per cubic centimetre and this appears to consist of 73 percent of the so called “dark energy”, 23percent of cold dark matter and 4percent of ordinary matter.
Dark energy is believed to cause the universe to accelerate while dark matter and ordinary matter generate an opposite effect. But, since the dark energy component is bigger the universe as a whole is able to accelerate.
Despite this progress, astronomy remains challenged by some embarrassing but interesting questions. First of all, astronomers and cosmologists have studied deeply about the existence of ordinary matter which is basically visible, but they are still lacking when it comes to the nature of dark matter and dark energy which are invisible and don’t interact with normal matter.
Secondly, there is a belief that there may be a possibility of life, intelligent life, elsewhere in the universe. The question of, “Are we (human beings) really alone in the Universe?” doesn’t have an answer yet.
How the IYA2009 was celebrated in Rwanda
The IYA2009 activities took place at international, regional, national and local levels. In Rwanda the celebrations were held at Kigali Institute of Education (KIE) on Friday December 18th, 2009.
This event was combined with the celebration of the World Science Day and was opened by the Minister of Education, Dr Charles Muligande.
The event attracted 134 participants comprised of lecturers, teachers, researchers and students from all Universities, Science High Schools and Research institutions around Rwanda.
They had a mandate to establish collaboration between professional and amateur astronomers, science centres, educators and science communicators in Rwanda’s world of science.
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the IYA2009 general secretariat agreed to cooperate with the Rwandan National Organising Committee of IYA2009.
In this context, Rwanda was earlier invited and has been represented in the regional meeting for Africa and Middle East that was organised in Cairo, Egypt on April 2nd -10th ,2008 and in Nairobi on November 8th to 13th 2009.
Although Astronomy is not fully developed in Rwanda, 2009 has been a year to sensitize the Rwandan educational and scientific communities, at all levels, about Astronomy, Astrophysics and Space Sciences and their contribution to Science and Technology.
The then Rwandan Minister of Science, Technology, Research and Education, Prof. Romain Murenzi, asked Prof. Charles McGruder, a Professor of Astronomy at Western Kentucky University (WKU), to develop a plan to install the first telescope and robotic observatory in Rwanda.
This led to Prof. McGruder visiting Rwanda on two occasions, in 2003 and 2004 where he met government officials and toured possible telescope sites.
Currently, he has finished the budget for the project and is waiting the approval and funding by the Rwandan government.
If funded and built, there is a hope that research in Astronomy and related Sciences in Rwanda will start and through the telescope, Rwanda would have a major impact on other African nations.
The benefits of astronomy in Rwanda
There is a need to develop research in Astronomy and related Sciences in Rwanda will start.
It is a pure coincidence that today there are four Rwandans doing postgraduate studies in the areas of Astronomy/Astrophysics and related Sciences under the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (in South Africa).
If they completed their programmes, there is hope that they will come back and help run these facilities.
Activities that marked the IYA
Astronomy conferences were held at some Institution of higher learning like Kigali Institute of Education at (KIE), Institut National d’Enseignement des Sciences in Ruhengeri and some Science High Schools.
A questionnaire on Astronomy for primary, high school and university students was developed and given to students.
Through the questionnaire the level of understanding of astronomical phenomena in Rwanda’s Education system was gauged. 500 students from 17 schools (3 primary schools and 14 high schools) and two institutions of higher learning participated.
The conclusions of the research survey conducted clearly showed the need to introduce teaching and learning of astronomy and space sciences in Rwanda’s educational system.
Schools that participated will be awarded small galileoscopes. The two overall best students; Victory Iyakaremye with 76.8%, from Groupe Scolaire de Butare and Jean Leon Iragena with 69.57% from Petit Seminaire de Ndera were awarded Rwf30.000 and an encyclopaedia of Sciences DVD.
The third price of Rwf15.000 and a science DVD was awarded to the overall best girl Joe Christa Giraso who scored 65.22% from Groupe Scolaire Notre Dame de Citeaux.
Rwanda also received a donation of 100 galileoscopes and firstscopes yet to be transported. These scopes will be distributed in the best Science High schools. An amateur telescope was also retained in KIE with the ability to look deeper into the sky.
These galileoscopes have the capability to survey the surface of the moon and the nearest stars with an acceptable resolution. With them, it will be able to see Jupiter and its moons as Galileo did 400 years ago.
Rwanda is yet to receive book donations that are being collected by Australian volunteer members of the Astronomers Without Borders Association.
Beyond 2009, the astronomy committee intends to take advantage of the momentum taken by the International Year of Astronomy and continue to build the requirements needed to establish astronomy in Rwanda.
The authors are members of the IYC Committee in Rwanda.