The National Observatory

The observatory.

The building housing the 1956 70cm meniscus telescope.

We arrived at the observatory as the sun was starting to set behind the mountains, so we dropped off our stuff and walked around the premises.  There were a few clouds floating by, but it promised to be a lovely clear night.  We had arranged to meet our host around 9:30, after nightfall, so we spent an hour or so walking around, taking a few pictures, and checking the place out.

Observatory.

Observatory.

The site was relatively large, with a hotel, office buildings, apartment blocks, and at least half a dozen buildings of various size housing the telescopes.

Two of the observatory's telescope domes.

Two of the observatory's domes.

The largest dome.

The largest dome.

This, the largest dome, appeared not to house a functioning telescope; it wasn’t included on our tour, and looking in the windows downstairs revealed a chaos of building materials, fragments of tiles, and a general air of disuse.  Perhaps that was just the back entrance, though; it’s connected to a rather large building on the other side not visible in this picture that possibly constitutes the entrance and offices.  I also read somewhere that one of the main functions of the observatory is observation of the sun, so perhaps it’s only open during the day.

One of the smaller ones.

One of the smaller ones.

The view from our apartment.

The view from our apartment.

As I mentioned in the previous post, we ended up staying at one of the astronomer’s apartment.  He lived next door, and if I understood correctly the flat we stayed in was usually occupied by his wife, who was now in Tbilisi.  A pleasant enough place: it was in one of the handful of 6 or 7 storied concrete Soviet blocks scattered around the complex, each flat equipped with a small iron-railinged balcony from which washing was hanging to dry.  Ours was on the second floor.

Checking out Andromeda on the Double Astrograph telescope.

Checking out Andromeda on the Double Astrograph telescope.

This was the best part of the visit.  Shota, the astronomer working here that night, was a stout, friendly fellow who enthusiastically interrupted his research to show us the telescope, explain his research to us, show us pictures on his computer, and train the instrument on objects for us to see.  He looked at us with large eyes behind thick glasses, eager for us to understand, as he rapidly sketched diagrams on his notebooks: this is how the huge CCD cameras attached to the telescopes work; this is how we use the telescope to do our research; this is why we can’t see Venus now.

Shota showing us his research.

Shota showing us his research.

His work at the moment, as far as I could understand it, was to take time-lapse pictures to reveal “fragments” in orbit around the Earth, pieces of space junk that might constitute a threat to the multiplicity of satellites.  He brought up a picture on the computer of the night sky, stars blurred into dashes, with occasional points of fixed light.  These were the fragments in orbit, those not stretched into dashes by the earth’s rotation.  It’s apparently part of a constant international effort monitoring debris in order to protect operational satellites.

Shota's research, identifying "fragments" amidst the stars stretched by the long exposure.

Shota's research, identifying "fragments" amidst the stars stretched by the long exposure.

Andromeda.  Even this was so bright the sensitive CCDs record simply a blaze at the center of the galaxy.

Andromeda. Even this was so bright the sensitive CCDs record simply a blaze at the center of the galaxy.

Here are a couple samples of the pictures the telescope has taken.

We also got a beautiful view of Jupiter and its moons.

We also got a beautiful view of Jupiter and three of its moons.

With a dangling remote control he turned the telescope towards Jupiter and then Andromeda.  He couldn’t take a picture of Jupiter, since the CCDs were so sensitive that something so close and bright would dazzle the camera and appear simply as a blaze of white; and even Andromeda wasn’t very well-defined.  But the image of Jupiter in the eye-piece was beautiful: a large, faintly-blushing, perfectly circular orb, the bands of color discernible but muted; and three tiny moons in orbit around it.  “If you wait about an hour you can watch another moon appear from behind the planet,” he said eagerly.

The Double Astrograph.

The Double Astrograph.

The 1937 Zeiss 70cm refractor telescope.

The 1937 Zeiss 40cm refractor telescope.

The guy who was showing us around, taking us from building to building, finally took us here, to his instrument.  It’s an old refractor telescope, which was, he told us, the most powerful in Europe for a long time.  He told a story about how Hitler had had a similar telescope at Berghof, which the Soviets brought to Leningrad after the war—this was the most powerful refractor, but it was sitting broken in Leningrad, so this one remained as the best functioning instrument.  He also said that a similar thing had happened among the minor leagues: Mussolini had a telescope identical to Hitler’s, which was taken to Yugoslavia after the war by Tito.  I wasn’t able to clarify it’s relation to this telescope.

Checking out Jupiter.

Checking out Jupiter.

It’s a large, long instrument, so long that, depending on how vertically one aims it, one has to raise or lower the circular floor so that one can comfortably reach the eye-piece.  Our host was adept at manipulating the various controls: first hauling the telescope roughly into place and swiveling the dome to allow a clear view, then adjusting the height of the floor, focusing, etc.  I can’t imagine it’s used for much research; it’s old and the images it presented weren’t of the best quality.  Our guide regretted there wasn’t a moon that night, since it was an ideal object for that telescope.

The museum.

The museum.

At the end of our tour our host showed us the museum, two reconstructed offices of the founders of the observatory and this larger room with models of telescopes and information about the observatory’s history.  After talking to him for a while, Khatuna and I left at around midnight, and slowly walked back to the apartment, stopping about half-way to gaze up at the night sky.  It was the first time in many years that I’d seen such a beautiful, clear, dark sky, with the Milky Way streaking prominently across the middle.  Together we saw at least four meteors, with a few disputed ones or those which only one of us saw.  As Orion was gradually climbing over the mountain, we made our way back to our flat, and went to bed.

Our apartment.

Our apartment.

Our place for the night was pleasant enough; small, comfortable, deliciously quiet, with all the necessities.  There were a number of books on shelves along the wall, all in Russian or Georgian; a map of the Georgian SSR on another wall; a small corner devoted to icons with a few of those long, narrow, yellow candles one sees in Georgian churches.  In the kitchen there was one of those small coils of metal connected to a plug, which provided the hot water for tea or coffee.  We were pretty exhausted, so we fell into our beds and fell asleep almost immediately.

The valley in the morning, from our balcony.

The valley in the morning, from our balcony.

In the morning we got up and took a last brief tour of the site before catching the 10:30 cable car back down to the village.

The cable-car station.

The cable-car station.

A great trip!

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One Response

  1. Thank you for your post. We are thinking of visiting the observatory next summer.

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