An observatory offers the chance to look at the starry sky using scientific instruments. Budapest’s one and only such place has been closed to the public until now but this is going to change. The Budapest Times visited in advance.
District XII has plenty of hilly and most of all green areas covered by woods. Besides the popular viewpoints Normafa and János hill there is another gem tucked away on the Buda side: the Konkoly Observatory. The recently renewed, bright buildings owned and operated by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences are in a park-like, well-groomed garden.
The astronomic observatory was founded in 1871 by the noble astronomer Miklós Konkoly-Thege as a private place, and in 1899 was given to the Hungarian state as an “ever-lasting present to astronomy”. Konkoly-Thege was an interesting figure of the 19th century who is regarded as the founder of modern astronomy in Hungary. It’s no coincidence that the street leading directly from Normafa to the observatory was named after the famous researcher, politician and train driver.
“Nowadays the observatory is a meeting place for scientists who are researching comets, mineral planets and stars,” László Kiss, the observatory’s director, explains. In 1940 they even discovered a comet at the largest dome of the establishment, which has a large Zeiss telescope.
The observatory also had a major role in the large-scale project of the Philae probe, the first man-made machine to make a smooth landing on a comet. The 67P/Tschurjumow-Gerassimenko comet was discovered during the project. This was the first comet and the seventh heavenly body that was or is still being examined by a landed space probe.
A common working day in an observatory is just like a realistic version of an episode in the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory”. Physical theories are being discussed on a high intellectual level for hours, and of course they are also test with 3D model planets. They make and perfect the 3D models themselves. In order to make the work as accurate as possible, the image information can be read from each telescope online.
They research micro-planets, comets and solar systems. “Our core competency however is stellar astronomy, which specifically deals with fixed stars and their own movement and distance,” Kiss says. “Our telescopes are solid and reliable but of course they cannot be compared to a telescope of NASA [the National Aeronautics and Space Administration], which is worth EUR 60 million.”
The observatory’s opening to the public on May 9 will realise an old dream of its manager. The occasion will coincide with the Transit of Mercury: “This is a relatively rare phenomenon,” Kiss explains. Although Mercury crosses between the Sun and the Earth in about every 116 days, it mostly misses the Sun and crosses a bit over or under it, so it’s invisible from the Earth.
“A real transit, meaning the planet crossing over the solar disc, takes place as rarely as 3.5 up to 13 years”. The last visible Mercury crossing happened in 2003. The planet on this day will be visible as a small black spot over the Sun. Basically we can call it an eclipse but Mercury is not able to cover such a substantial part of the Sun that would cause the sunlight to fade on Earth.
“When observed from Earth, the planet will be even smaller on the surface of the Sun than most of the solar spots.”
So you can’t recognise a Mercury transit with your bare eyes at all. In fact it is strictly forbidden to look into the sun without appropriate protection.
This first public event will begin around noon. “We will let the visitors use two or three of our smaller telescopes to see the transit of Mercury,” Kiss says. “Our researchers are also planning to give a couple of lectures.”
The day will be free but Open Nights planned for later in the garden will probably cost HUF 500-1000. “We hope that people will want to visit us and that they do not have to spend a lot to do so, but nevertheless the maintenance and repair of the equipment is also very costly so we can’t organise the events for free,” Kiss says.
The Open Nights will be on Wednesday evenings, ideally in the first half of the month so that visitors can observe an impressive half-moon after sunset. The observatory is also planning to set up a museum and a permanent exhibition. They are especially proud to own the oldest library on Hungarian astronomy.
“We own first-hand copies from Copernicus, Kepler and Galilei. These are primary sources of information for us, reaching back right to the 18th century.” Speeches at the events will be primarily in Hungarian and English. “Astronomy is an international science. This is why we lay a lot of emphasis on communicating in English.”
The research institute around the observatory employs 80 researchers, including 50 astronomers coming from universities or smaller observatories. “We are the largest research facility in Hungary,” Kiss says. “Two-thirds of all the astronomers are working for us. Since we primarily use English literature during our research work and accordingly mainly publish in English as well, knowing this language is absolutely a must for all employees working in this field.”
The observatory maintains international partnerships valued very highly by its director. “We maintain international relationships during our knowledge exchange with our foreign partners. Our main partner is the Max Planck Institute in Germany. We also get valuable expertise from the Netherlands, Spain, France, Great Britain, Denmark and Australia.”
Kiss lived in Sydney, Australia, for seven years, teaching at the University of Astronomy, which resulted in his perfect English. “Many of my former students went to the USA, which fills such an important role in the history of astronomy, which cannot be denied. So I have a lively communication with scientists from Princeton, Harvard, Baltimore and Arizona. Having a conversation with one of my former students always fills me with pride.”
Konkoly Observatory also currently employs five foreign researchers, two from Australia and the others from Italy, the Czech Republic and China. “We are always happy to employ international professionals and we pay attention to fair salaries, which are calculated not according to Hungarian conditions but according to the specifics of the sector,” Kiss points out.
Finally, the observatory also organises bachelor and masters courses in astronomy at ELTE University.
You can find more information at www.konkoly.hu