Star wars start here

July 16, 1999

In what has been described as a battle between the Big Bang and Big Bucks,

astronomers at an international conference have taken on the rest of the world to push for the preservation of the sky.

Members of the International Astronomical Union met this week in Vienna to discuss the man-made environmental problems that are threatening astronomical research.

Any recommendations made at the IAU symposium will be passed on to the forthcoming Technical Forum of the Third United Nations Global Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (Unispace III).

One major area of concern is the impact

the increasing number of telecommunications satellites has had on the frequencies used by radio astronomers. Jim Cohen, of Manchester University's Nuffield Radio Astronomy Observatory at Jodrell Bank, one of the three co-chairs on the organising committee, said that previous arrangements with

telecommunications companies to secure "quiet bands" for astronomical research have not been successful.

"Man-made radio signals are much stronger than those used by radio

astronomers and quite often some of their

signal spills over into our quiet band," Dr Cohen said. "We want to be able to protect them so more work can be done."

Derek McNally, of University College London, who is also a member of the symposium organising committee, said that measures needed to be put in place to safeguard the future of one of the world's

oldest sciences. "Astronomers are paranoid because as soon as we get resolutions in place in one area, they are mucked up in another. There is nothing in the system that is

pro-astronomy. We need to form a

comprehensive resolution to feed into the UN system that will let astronomers co-exist with all the other beneficiaries that use space."

Other areas to be tackled include the

problems caused by the increase in space debris in recent years and light pollution caused by the launch of luminous objects into space, such as solar reflectors. Used for

artistic or advertising purposes, these panels can be up to ten times as bright as the full moon and severely distort astronomical

observations.

As the frequency of a normal mobile phone competes for the top three places in the range of signals used by British astronomers,

convincing the multinational companies that they really ought to create more room for

scientific research is not likely to be easy task.

"The world needs astronomy because if

we do not have a cosmic perspective we will be prone to making disastrous errors," Dr McNally said.

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