Two Girls and Starry Nights: Armenian Astronomers Reclaim Their Legacy
Hasmik Andreasyan, 26, feels at home when she looks at the stars.
The daughter of an astronomer, Hasmik grew up next to Armenia’s largest telescope at Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory.
Today she is following her father’s footsteps as one of nine young female astronomers working at the observatory.
Armenian astronomy, specifically the Byurakan Observatory, has a rich history. Armenian astronomers have made great findings in the field, especially in the area of astrophysics. A legend of modern astronomy, Viktor Ambartsumian, was an ethnic Armenian and the founder of the observatory.
But the study of astronomy has struggled to find its footing in Armenia since the end of the Soviet Union. Funding cuts and education reforms have both played a role.
Today 43 researchers work at the 53-hectare observatory, including nine young women.
Hasmik and Anahit Samsonyan, 30, represent the new generation of astronomers in Armenia.
The two young scientists travel from capital Yerevan to the observatory, a 40 minute drive by minibus, nearly every day to conduct experiments and observe the cosmos.
Hasmik specializes in young stars. Anahit studies infrared astronomy.
While Hasmik grew up studying the stars, Anahit only became interested in the field as a university student, when she visited the observatory on a field trip.
Both scientists are active in their field, at times staying up all night waiting for clouds to clear so they can work.
“Our profession seems very romantic, but in reality it is not like that. Most of the time we sit in front of computers and do calculations and experiments. But our daily routine is quite diverse on the days we make observations,” notes Hasmik.
“Our working schedule is not limited to eight hours a day, five days in a week. … Sometimes during my observation days, if there are clouds in the sky, I stay awake all night.”
On observation days, scientists can stay in the village, also called Byurakan. There are still Soviet-era dormitory rooms for the observatory staff to use.
“My father is an astronomer and I grew up in Byurakan. My father has a dormitory here. I went to the village school. In this environment I couldn't help loving astronomy,” Hasmik says.
The village, located in western Armenia, may not be as famous as Paris or London, but it is well known in the world of astronomy.
Several major discoveries have been made at the observatory, which was founded in 1946.
Its contributions to the field include groundbreaking work in stellar associations, phenomena related to the nuclei of galaxies and the theory of super-dense matter.
Today, Anahit says, Armenian scientists have access to the latest developments and there are no limits on what they can achieve.
“Astronomy has no borders. I don’t feel separated from the global scientific community. My career depends on my ambitions, and me, and there are no limits. In this era of the internet, we have many possibilities to learn about any new discovery very quickly,” Anahit says.
She adds that young astronomers usually go on three to four business trips a year to take part in different conferences and to cooperate on scientific work with foreign colleagues.
Anahit notes that, thanks to Armenia’s contributions to astronomy, young astronomers feel a huge responsibility to continue Ambartsumian's work.
“Astronomy is an international science, at any stage of your career you can continue your education abroad, get new knowledge and expand your horizons. There are many opportunities for that... Byurakan Observatory used to be one the leading in the world and in that sense we [young professionals] feel very responsible to make sure we do not lag behind the latest achievements in astronomy and we help inspire young people to enter the field.”