To be an astronomer is to be a member of a very select group. Only 50 new astronomers graduate from Russian universities every year. But as many as 100 people who share this rare profession live in the tiny village of Nizhniy Arkhyz, situated in a picturesque valley and surrounded by the Caucasus mountains and ancient temples. The oldest scientist in the group, Yury Glagolevsky, is 82.
The village has such a high concentration of scientists because it is located just over 10 miles from the Large Azimuth Telescope (LAT), one of the biggest in the world. Only 30 people have ever actually gazed through that telescope at the stars.
The telescope’s 6 metre diameter main mirror is visible in the lower right part of the image
Yury Balega, the head of the telescope facility, said that the work of an astronomer is not just stargazing.
“The times of Galileo are long gone,” Balega said, “These days, all the information collected by the telescope is fed to a computer. The job of the astronomers is to process and interpret that data. That work can take months, even years. Huge amounts of data are constantly being exchanged, so astronomers work as parts of a team - usually an international team. A single academic paper can have up to 10 authors.”
Is there life in a telescope?
Despite the slow pace of work, life at the LAT facility is fairly comfortable. In addition to recreation facilities and a nice cafeteria, breathtaking views of snowy mountain peaks open from every window.
There is, however, one major drawback. Every morning, at 8 a.m. sharp, the astronomers are woken up by tourists. The facility hosts up to 500 visitors each day – no small feat for a location more than 9,000 feet above sea level.
The telescope’s building, with a special crane on the right used for maintenance
In the 1970 and 1980s, when the LAT was still the largest telescope in the world, Nizhniy Arkhyz hosted numerous science conferences. Leading astronomers from all over the world would gather at the telescope facility. Despite the prestige, Balega says that the life of a Soviet astronomer was not easy.
“Observations would start at 5 p.m., and continue until 7 a.m.,” Balega said. “The scientist would sit in a tiny cabin at the very top of the telescope. The visor of the telescope would slowly slide sideways, opening up a breathtaking view of the sky. That view was absolutely stunning! But it was extremely cold, sitting there at the top. We had to wear a special heated costume we called ‘the penguin.’ We would spend 14 hours at a time in that cabin; we couldn’t leave until the whole telescope assembly was lowered. We couldn’t move in that cabin, either, because our movements would send tremors across the entire telescope assembly, blurring the image of the stars on the photo plate. And leaving the cabin early was simply out of the question.”
Today, astronomers rarely have a minute to themselves during the workday.
“My day at work starts by reading new papers by colleagues from all over the world,” said Sergei Fabrika, who works at the LAT. “On average, 50 new papers are published in our field every day. I can sometimes spend the whole day analyzing a particularly interesting article. I then process fresh data from the telescope. After that, I meet students and post-graduates. The reason I have any time to myself during the day is that the journey from work to home is a three-minute walk, so usually I have an hour to play badminton.”
BTA-6 (Большой Телескоп Альт-азимутальный, Bolshoi Teleskop Alt-azimutalnyi, aka “The Large Azimuth Telescope”
Continue reading ‘The sky’s limit for astronomers in the North Caucasus' via RBTH and stay curious! Explore the history of astronomical observing regarding the BAT/LAT HERE to understand the characteristics and production of this beautiful time machine.