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In the winter, their days often start with shoveling snow and pulling heavy sleds up a hill. They sometimes end in the darkness of power cuts. But these are not Arctic explorers. No, they are Bulgarian astronomers.
Recent budget cuts have left the scientists to struggle against the elements. Now they are facing the possible closure of the Rozhen Observatory – a facility that played a pioneering role not only in the region, but also as a partner of NASA, even when the U.S. was a sworn enemy of communist Bulgaria in the 1980s.
But the modern Bulgarian state doesn’t seem to care as much as its predecessor did about the country’s participation in the world of science. Since the funding cuts began in 2010, the observatory’s continued existence has become precarious. Its building – in the lavish and somewhat ugly style favoured by the former communist leader Todor Zhivkov – badly needs repair. But most of all, the astronomers are being given what they say is, at best, a subsistence budget.
“We asked for 1.4 million leva [around $925 000] for the necessary infrastructure maintenance. Just to survive at the bare minimum, we need 960,000 leva [$635,000]. And we actually receive 692,000 leva [$458 000],” explains Tanyu Bonev, director of Bulgaria’s Institute of Astronomy, which runs Rozhen.
But the observatory will not receive any extra funding, finance minister Simeon Djankov said earlier this month. “This is none of state’s business,” he concluded.
You can’t see all the stars all the time
But if the government doesn’t fund astronomy, who will?
Nalin Samarasinha, a Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona, doubts that the private sector will step up for astronomy – or even physics or biology – without the promise of “immediate commercial benefit.” He says that Rozhen’s observations have made important contributions to his own research on comet science, as well as two NASA missions, to comet Hartley 2 in 2010 and comet Tempel 1 in 2005.
Samarasinha believes funding cuts at Rozhen are terrible news for American astronomers.
“When you observe certain objects [like comets],” he explains, “it is important to have global coverage for the simple reason that you can’t see the object you’re observing at every point in the day from the United States. To fill that temporal gap it is important to have observatories throughout the world and, in that sense, Rozhen’s observations are really important, particularly given the tremendous gap in observatories from Eastern Europe to Taiwan.”
He adds that budget constraints have led to cuts at American observatories as well.
Michal Drahus, a postdoctoral fellow at Cal Tech, agrees that Rozhen’s role in providing 24-hour coverage of comets is essential.
“Sure we have many telescopes at Mauna Kea in Hawaii or in Arizona or here in California,” he says, “but they are all clustered around the same longitude. It’s a big telescope in a part of Europe that doesn’t have a lot of them. And at Rozhen they have a very unique imaging system, FoReRo-2, specifically designed to provide molecular images of comets. It’s a really neat feature, and I believe there is no other facility in the world with this kind of imaging capability.”
Meanwhile, Samarasinha points out that while his science may not seem to have direct commercial application to life on earth, astronomers contributed to developing medical image processing technologies that doctors now to use to find tumors and other abnormalities.
“The fact remains,” he argues, “that we have done a lot of things in astronomy that will have benefits for human kind in twenty to thirty years time.”
A brief history of Rozhen
Even without the promise of lucrative technology, you’d think a place like Rozhen would be an object of national pride in Bulgaria, given its past and present scientific significance. But the observatory’s rich history – and its little known cooperation with the U.S – might not be enough to save it.
Known by its proper name, the National Astronomic Observatory of Bulgaria (Rozhen NAO) was founded in the late 70s. My father, professor Vladimir Shkodrov, was one of the founders and led the first research team to cooperate with NASA. It remains the biggest and most modern observatory in southeastern Europe. Built within the Communist Bloc in a bid to rival the world of western science, it actually ended up helping Bulgarian astronomers cooperate with their colleagues on the other side of the Iron Curtain, which they started to do in 1981, a particularly tense time in Soviet-U.S. relations.
It is still a mystery how Bulgaria’s communist regime allowed its scientists to contribute the results of state-funded research to its greatest ideological enemy, the United States. But the astronomers always managed (not without difficulty) to obtain permission to send their data, which contained classified material, to the Americans. This unusual arrangement made it possible for Bulgarian astronomers to be credited by name for the discovery of more than 20 asteroids in the 80’s, and hundreds in the present day.
This cooperation became particularly significant with the approach of Halley’s Comet, which Rozhen helped track from 1982 up to and beyond its closest approach to the Earth in 1986.
Without funds, a difficult future
Today the observatory is still involved in important scientific projects and regularly reports discoveries. Only recently a team of Bulgarian astronomers found previously unreported structures related to the fueling of active galactic nuclei. And a new class of magnetically active stars was identified with Bulgarian participation. Rozhnev also conducts the observations of an asteroid that could pose a threat to Earth in cooperation with a larger international program run by NASA, according to Bonev.
Even so, he isn’t optimistic about getting more money. “The Academy helps a little,” he says, “but still not enough. Their argument is that other institutions also need more funding.”
The situation is so bad that for the past two years there hasn’t been enough money to pay the annual electricity bill. And so each year, the astronomers write letters, make media noise, and pull attention-grabbing stunts. The latest one was to suggest a fundraising soccer match – the Observatory’s Rozhen Bears versus the Prime Minister’s Bistritsa Tigers.
“The less seriously we behave, the more seriously we are taken,” says Bonev with regret.
And while the European Union helps finance Rozhen’s participation in various pan-European research projects, that money can’t be used for maintenance costs like electricity. Another place the money is not going is to the astronomers’ salaries: they have not taken a pay rise since 2007 and have seen their pay cut by 40%.
Young astronomers are paid as little as 364 leva ($241) a month, but they try to be positive about it. Commenting on their motivation, Bonev refers to the legend recounted of John Flamsteed (1646-1719), England’s first royal astronomer. Having enquired how much he was paid and hearing the answer, the Queen exclaimed: “Even my horsemen are paid three times more. I will order a raise for you from tomorrow.” “Please, don’t, Your Majesty!” Flamsteed allegedly exclaimed. “The observatory will fill up with horsemen!”
Absent Bulgarian horsemen, the Rozhen astronomers have continued their asteroids observation program – their latest discovery of two new objects and the precise information on their trajectories was confirmed by the Minor Planet Center at Harvard last week.
But now, instead of focusing solely on its core tasks, Rozhen will have to work on two joint projects with the Ministry of Environment and Water and the Ministry of Agriculture, both designed explicitly to help the observatory survive. One project involves comparing the rings of trees from six regions in Bulgaria with the solar activity from the last 100 years in order to better understand the effect of the climate change.
“Such research is being done in other countries,” says Bonev. “Not always by astronomers, but when you are pushed against the wall, you have to do what you have to do.”
Albena Shkodrova is a journalist and travel writer. She has worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London and for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN. She co-authored the book “Hidden Treasures of Bulgaria,” currently runs BalkanTravellers and is a former editor of the Bulgarian gourmet magazine “Bacchus.” She is now working on a non-fiction book about cuisine under socialism, and enjoys life shuttling between Sofia, where she works, and Brussels, where she lives. Her father was one of the founders of the Rozhen Observatory.
Nicholas Nehamas contributed reporting to this story.