GALILEO may be the star of the International Year of Astronomy, which was launched last night in Paris to mark 400 years since he revolutionised our knowledge of the universe, but the Italian does not deserve his reputation as the first to observe and draw a celestial object with the aid of a telescope.
British experts say Galileo was beaten to that punch by an Englishman, Thomas Harriot, who drew a picture of the moon using a Dutch telescope.
Harriot's crude sketch, dated July 26, 1609, predates Galileo's first images of the moon by four months, said Allan Chapman, a science historian at the University of Oxford. He has set out his evidence in a new paper published by the Royal Astronomical Society.
"Thomas Harriot is an unsung hero of science. His drawings mark the beginning of the era of modern astronomy we now live in," Dr Chapman said.
The English mathematician was single and rich and did not want to draw attention to himself by publishing his astronomical work because some of his patrons had been imprisoned in the Tower of London, he said.
"Unlike Galileo, Thomas Harriot was not an agenda- or career-driven individual."
The Italian professor, on the other hand, was poorly paid, did not like his university job and had a complicated family life. "He wanted fame, comfort and security, and the telescope opened up such possibilities to him," Dr Chapman said.
Harriot produced highly detailed maps of the moon's surface between 1610 and 1613 and independently discovered sunspots. But it was Galileo who won a place in history for discovering the moons of Jupiter and publicly championing the view that the sun was the centre of the solar system.
Australia was represented at last night's launch at UNESCO headquarters by the chief scientist, Professor Penny Sackett, who is an astronomer.
To mark the occasion, CSIRO radio telescopes took part in a 33-hour marathon observation held worldwide. Telescopes in Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America are tracking three quasars - star-like objects that emit radio waves - as they rise and set with the Earth's rotation.
"This demonstration is an unprecedented and extraordinary feat of co-ordination, involving 17 telescopes and 28 data networks around the world," said Chris Phillips of CSIRO's Australia Telescope National Facility.
Details of public astronomy events in Australia this year are listed at www.astronomy2009.org.au.