Skinakas Obseravatory celebrates 25th anniversary

July 26, 2011

The Skinakas Observatory has been in existence for 25 years and this was celebrated end of May on top of the Ida mountains. Founded in 1986 by the University of Crete, the Foundation for Research and Technology Hellas FORTH and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, it is used both for the training of students and basic astronomical research. Today the Skinakas Observatory has three telescopes: a 1.3m Ritchey Chrétien telescope, a 0.6m and a 0.3m telescope. The 0.6m fully robotic telescope is a joined project of the University of Crete and the University of Tübingen, Germany.

Following up on an idea for an observatory on Crete, which formed in 1983/84, the scientists found the exact site for the observatory in 1984 during a hiking trip. Not long after this, work began: a gravel road had to be built and partly blasted out of rock, the first building was constructed and a few scientists and technicians from MPE installed the first (small) telescope. And then, before Easter 1986, the Skinakas Observatory had “first light”, just in time for observations of the comet Halley.

While initially the scientists had to observe under rather primitive conditions – no running water and only a generator for electricity – today the Observatory also includes a guest house in addition to the three telescope buildings. Since 1995, the main instrument is a mirror telescope with 1.3m in diameter, which combines a large field of view with high image quality. With a mean seeing of roughly half an arcsecond, Skinakas is one of the best astronomy observing sites in the Mediterranean.

The scientific aims of the Skinakas Observatory have diversified from the original comet observations and are varied. Astronomical topics range from active galaxies via variable stars to the search for extrasolar planets. One particular focus has been on simultaneous or follow-up observations of X-ray objects for a long time. In the 1990ies, Skinakas was used by MPE scientists for follow-up observations of sources found with ROSAT. For more than ten years now, an instrument built at MPE has been used on and off at the observatory: OPTIMA (Optical Pulsar Timing Analyzer) is a high-speed photoncounter, which originally was built to measure pulsars with high time resolution and high sensitivity. Meanwhile it is used to observe also other rapid variable objects such as cataclysmic variables or the optical afterglow of gamma-ray bursts.

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