A Cosmic Day Trip

Before the ETF I knew essentially nothing about Armenia. In search of possible attractions beyond Yerevan, one immediately caught my eye: ROT-54, a now-abandoned radio telescope just 20 miles from the capital. I find soviet relics fascinating, and greatly enjoyed my tour of Pyramiden many years ago. Access seemed tricky, but I figured there might be others at the conference who would also be keen to take a look and rather more resourceful than me! So I booked an additional night in Yerevan in hopes of a plan coming together on the ground.

Fortunately a couple of months before the festival the organisers asked if there was any interest in a post-con tour of some soviet science sites. Organised by Next is Armenia, the itinerary – dubbed ‘the Special Cosmic Day Trip‘ – lead from Yerevan to a research station perched 3200m above sea level on Mount Aragats. Both there and along the way, access had been arranged to various facilities not normally open to the public – including Orgov! Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity, and managed to claim one of the few tickets.

Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory

Our first stop, less than an hour’s drive from the capital but already at an altitude of 1400m, was BAO – the Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory. Founded in 1946, for nearly 50 years this was the home base of Viktor Ambartsumian, one of the leading 20th century scientists not just of Armenia, but the entire Soviet Union. It remains a significant research centre today, coordinating efforts in southwest and central Asia, and we met the current director who explained some of its work before showing us around a couple of the observatories.

Their 1m Schmidt telescope has an interesting history. Initially commissioned pre-WW2 by Hitler as a gift for Mussolini, it languished unfinished in Germany during the war before being seized as a trophy by Soviet troops. It made its way to Leningrad, where it was eventually completed in the 1950s, then was carefully transported – over several months, at a maximum speed of 15km/h – to Byurakan, with ‘first light’ in 1960. The next year Khrushchev visited to formally open the facility – and met a then-young engineer, now in his 80s, who showed us some of the revolutionary optics that ushered in a new era of big astronomical surveys. Khrushchev’s visit wasn’t just a major acknowledgement of Armenian theoretical physics, it had practical results too – for the Premier was plied with potent local alcohol by politicians and drunkenly signed off many documents that had been stuck in central bureaucracy!

Although work on the Schmidt telescope was stopped thirty years ago, BAO still operates an even larger 2.6m reflector telescope, which (after a short bus ride across campus) we also got to tour. As impressive as the actual device was, what delighted me the most was the original control panels, comically huge next to modern PCs that pack unimaginably more power into far more boring boxes.

Orgov Radio-Optical Telescope

This set the scene nicely for our next stop, my original goal: the Orgov radio-optical telescope. A slightly perilous road carried us another 300m up the mountain, to an imposing gatehouse I clearly would not have been able to charm my way through. But once past, our group was free to roam the site as we wished (and at our own risk – at one point I nearly blundered over an unguarded edge into a two storey fall). It was the vast dish – 54m in diameter and built into the hillside – that I had come to see, but I soon realised that we could access the former control room too. Not only was this a treasure trove of vintage equipment, but a fantastic mural also survives.

Aragats Cosmic Ray Research Station

It took another hour to reach the final stop on our tour. From our guide’s warning of freezing temperatures, my own previous experience of the Banff cosmic ray station and this wonderful photo essay, I had expected a mountain peak covered in deep snow. But despite the altitude and it being mid-October, conditions were mild – spare layers I had brought with me went unworn!

Continuing the Soviet theme, our first event here was lunch – 1970s style, queuing in an old-fashioned dining room for ladles of Borscht. As you might guess, this was not really my kind of thing, but I did manage to fish out a few veggies and mop up some of the thin soup with bread before making a break for the dessert stand 🙂 Once fed, I ventured outside for some photos of the lake, buildings, and a cat who seemed to be the boss of the whole place.

A traditional Soviet lunch – Borscht

We finished with a strange tour of the tunnels underneath the research station, allowing for easier movement between surface buildings and underground storage facilities were the weather to be a bit more severe. We were firmly forbidden from taking any photos within the tunnels, as they are considered of strategic significance. Yet there was no problem with walking through them, and I could probably sketch you a map, so I’m not sure what the security benefits were…

Similar security rules apply to, for example, the Yerevan metro, and as I have no interest in causing an international incident, you will have to settle for my pictures of the entrance and exit as proof we were there. We were escorted by one of the technical staff, but his explanations had to be translated from Armenian by our guide, so we didn’t get into too much detail. Still, I got the gist of how they use a network of detectors to investigate atmospheric signals, both cosmic and meteorological.


It took a couple of hours to return to Yerevan, but we were still back comfortably in time for dinner, and given my well-travelled company there was no end of interesting conversations to be had along the way. Most guided tours of Armenia seem to be focused on its religious landmarks – a variety of monasteries, churches and temples dot the countryside. So I’m glad I had a chance to try something rather different – and with a level of access I’d never have got on my own! I don’t know how big a group you’d need to arrange something similar with Next is Armenia, but I’d happily recommend them more generally – and if you want to see more of these sites from the comfort of your own home, I have put together a gallery in the next post.