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Scientists Will Meet in Vienna to Discuss
Increasing Man-Made Environmental Problems
for the Oldest Science


IAU Press Release 02/99

July 2, 1999:


Astronomy, a science that has been a leading engine of human progress since ancient times, now finds itself increasingly at risk from a new type of environmental degradation - that of space itself. Astronomers from around the world will gather in Vienna (Austria) on July 12 - 16 to discuss the threats of light pollution, radio interference and space debris to their research.

"The rapidly-accelerating exploitation of space is quickly degrading an environment that has been declared 'the common heritage of all mankind,'" says Dr. Johannes Andersen, General Secretary of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), and adds : "Because astronomers must use extremely sensitive instruments to study very faint and distant objects in the universe, they are the first to feel the effects of this degradation. However, they will not be alone for long."

The Vienna meeting, an IAU-COSPAR-UN (International Astronomical Union - COmmittee on SPAce Research - United Nations) Special Environmental Symposium (IAU Symposium 196), will focus on three major threats to astronomical research.

In space, interference at radio frequencies from telecommunications satellites and their ever-increasing demand for new wavebands cloud the future of radio astronomy and the communication with scientific satellites. Space debris is a growing threat to scientific satellites and also interferes with ground-based observations.

There also are projects to launch highly luminous objects into space for various purposes such as earth illumination and artistic, celebratory, or advertising goals. Depending on the size, reflectivity and orbital charateristics, they could be devastating to all of observational astronomy.

On the ground, man-made light pollution has already made large areas of the world unsuitable for astronomical observations. Radio astronomers are now concerned about growing levels of radio pollution and its effect on existing and planned radio observatories.

Several causes of these problems are global in extent and irreversible in time, so it is urgent to address them now.

Specialists from all over the world will attend the IAU Symposium at the UN facilities in Vienna (Austria). The theme is "Preserving the Astronomical Sky" and the meeting is part of the Technical Forum of the Third United Nations Global Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE III). The theme of this conference is "Space Benefits for Humanity in the Twenty-first Century." It is convened as a special session of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and is open to all member states of the United Nations, international organizations and space industry).

The threats to astronomy jeopardize a science that has contributed to human progress for thousands of years. From producing the calendar that made agriculture possible to making modern medical imaging and telecommunications more effective, astronomy has changed life for the better in innumerable ways. Today, astronomical research is the only way for scientists to use the "cosmic laboratory" of the universe, containing extreme conditions of temperatures, pressures, densities, etc., from which new insights about fundamental physics - and possibly entire new technologies - will emerge.

In addition, understanding the nature of the Universe is one of mankind's oldest and strongest fascinations. Observations of the sky above us have been made at all ages, our knowledge about the Universe and its mysteries has gradually improved and with great intellectual and technological efforts, we have come to better understand our distant cosmic origins and amazingly small niche in space and time. The intellectual adventure of this quest inspires people of all ages, and is a particularly powerful tool for attracting young people to the scientific and technical career fields that build economic strength.

Observations at all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, from the ground and from space, have been vital in the phenomenal progress in all areas of astronomy in the 20th century. They range from the exploration of the solar system to discoveries of the echo of the Big Bang and the beginnings of structure in the Universe. Most recently, new and powerful research facilities have found planets around other stars and many scientists are convinced that we may one day discover distant Earth-like abodes that could also harbour life.

Nevertheless, continued scientific studies by all nations of the origin and evolution of the Universe are now being jeopardized by man-made environmental problems of rapidly growing severity.

In Vienna, the Symposium participants will hear reports of astronomers and other scientists from many different disciplines and geographical areas about the increasing problems; this will include a number of audio-visual demonstrations. The participants will attempt to establish a global overview of the current status. They will evaluate the severity of the various threats and their progression. Where possible, constructive measures of alleviation will be proposed. They will discuss means to call attention to the increasingly dramatic situation. They will pass on their findings and formal recommendations to the participants in UNISPACE III, for consideration during the impending review and update of the UN Space Treaties that will be carried out by the Legal Subcommittee of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) on this occasion.

Arrangements for the Media

All media representatives are welcome to be present at IAU Symposium 196 ("Preserving the Astronomical Sky"), and will have the opportunity to interact with the participating scientists. Please note that you must preregister with the UN Information Service (UNIS) in Vienna to get access to the site (Ms. Veronica Mayerhofer, UNIS Accreditation Service, Tel.: +43-1-26060-2242).

A Press Conference will be held on the UN premises in Vienna on Friday, July 16, 1999, at 12:30 local time (CEST) during which the outcome of the meeting will be summed up by key participants in this Symposium.

Media representatives who wish to report on this meeting are invited to contact soonest one of the Press and Media Officers:

     David Finley (NRAO)
     National Radio Astronomy Observatories, Socorro, NM, USA
     email: dfinley@nrao.edu 
     Tel: +1-(505) 835-7302
     Fax: +1-(505) 835-7027

     Richard West (ESO)
     European Southern Observatory, Garching, Germany 
     email: rwest@eso.org 
     Tel: +4989-32006276 
     Fax: +4989-32-2362

Information about IAU Symposium 196

More information about IAU Symposium 196 and the detailed scientific programme is available at the dedicated website: http://www.darksky.org/ida/iau196/

The symposium is sponsored by the International Astronomical Union and organized by Commission 50 of (Protection of Existing and Potential Observatory Sites), with the support of Commissions 9 (Instrumentation), 21 (Light of the Night Sky), 25 (Photometry), 40 (Radio Astronomy), 46 (Education), and 51 (Bioastronomy: Search for Extraterrestrial Life).

The International Co-sponsors are COSPAR, the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, International Commission on Illumination (CIE), URSI, IAF, ICSU, UNESCO, IUCAF, International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), and others.

IAU website: http://www.iau.org

UNISPACE III website: http://www.un.or.at/OOSA/unisp-3/frontpage.html

For more information, contact the Secretariat or the Press and Media Officers, indicated above.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU), founded in 1919, is the international non-governmental organization uniting professional astronomers all over the world. It currently has 61 Member States and over 8,300 Individual Members in 83 countries. Its scientific activities are coordinated by 11 Divisions and 40 Commissions spanning the entire field of astronomy. The IAU is integrated in the international scientific community through its membership of the International Council for Science (ICSU) and represents astronomy in committees of the UN and other international organizations. The permanent IAU Secretariat is located in Paris, France. (see below).

IAU/UAI Secretariat
Institut d'Astrophysique Tel: +33 1 4325 8358
98bis, Bld. Arago Fax: +33 1 4325 2616
F - 75014 Paris E-Mail:     iau@iap.fr
France WWW:       http://www.iau.org

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