Two Girls and Starry Nights: Armenian Astronomers Reclaim Their Legacy

Author: Inna Mkhitaryan

Edition: Millennials

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.

Anahit and Hasmik inside the 2.6 telescope at Byurakan Observatory.
The 2.6m telescope is the largest telescope at the Byurakan Observatory.
Hasmik and Anahit at work. There are just nine young women working as scientists at the observatory.
Hasmik pours liquid nitrogen in the equipment, which helps to avoid aberrations in images.
Anahit helping her colleague in the observation room. She rarely makes observations using the telescope. “Night work is not for me. It is very hard to make observations,” she says.
Anahit and Hasmik walk along the balcony of the Byurakan Observatory while waiting for the telescope and technical equipment to be prepared for observations.
The curtains at Viktor Ambartsumian’s house are a reminder of how people used to live in the village: households were expected to cover their windows with heavy curtains to prevent light pollution. There is no outdoor lighting in the village, as well.
Hasmik, the daughter of an astronomer, has wanted to work at the observatory since she was a child.
Anahit with her senior colleagues, principal research associate, Tigran Maghakian, 66, and research associate Marietta Gyulzadyan, 63, have lunch at the observatory.
It is so cold in Byurakan that the small space heaters in the dormitory rooms provided for astronomers are not enough to heat the rooms. Hasmik makes tea for herself and Anahit so they can stay warm while they wait.
Hasmik and Anahit walk in the village. There is no outdoor lighting in the village, part of the effort to reduce light pollution that would harm the work of the observatory.
Anahit and Hasmik discuss a conference Hasmik recently attended in the Netherlands. Anahit was also abroad not long ago, as part of an educational program in Finland.
The sky cleared for several hours so Hasmik was able to work.
The astronomers use a phone flashlight to walk up the stairs in the darkness.

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.”

Millennials, February/March 2019

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