WHAT IS: Skinakas Observatory in Crete

Somewhere in Crete above the clouds, on one of the peaks of Psiloritis mountains at 1750m an eye to the universe exists. That is the Observatory of Skinakas, situated some kilometers away from the village of Anogeia, on the way to the cave of Idaion Andron where Rea, the mother of Zeus hid him as an infant so that he wouldn’t be eaten by his father Kronos who swallowed his children. He was guarded by the goat Amaltheia who fed him with her milk and his cries were covered by the dance of Kourites.  

There on a plateau on the mountain, researchers spend mostly spring and summer nights on the three telescopes that are placed there, 1.3m, 0.6m, and 0.3m. The second restarted its operation in the summer of 2022 after the repairing of its done that it had been blown out by the wind in the past.  

The seeds for the idea to build a telescope there started in 1984 from the University of Crete and got materialized with the aid of the Max Planck Institute in Germany and the local community. The grand opening took place in 1986, along with the passing by of the Halley comet that was neighboring Earth and would be visible after 76 years. There, also, a very high analysis camera (CCD) was installed for the first time in Greece.  

How do the observations happen? Each telescope is placed inside a dome that cuts out the light from the environment and allows one to focus on one target, for example, a star. The light from the star travels to reach us, then hits and gets reflected from the telescope mirror and ends up in that CCD camera. The more the telescope spends looking at one target the more light it will gather from it – meaning more information. Imagine a bucket that gathers rain, in a similar way the CCD gathers the light.  

And what do they observe from Skinakas? 

There are many different targets observed from the telescopes. Some of them are emission and absorption nebulae – this means giant gas clouds that are usually found in spiral galaxies (like the Milky Way). These gas clouds are usually the birthplaces of stars and the gas that exists there is enough to create more than 100.000 suns! Some examples are X-ray binaries, supernovae, active galactic nuclei, gamma-ray bursts, and many more. 

photo by Errikos Papatheodorou, UoC Student’s Astronomy Group

Can I also visit the observatory? Happening to be in Crete in the summer, yes! Pass by the village of Anogeia to taste some local mizithropitakia and galaktoboureko and head towards the mountain after.  There are public days during the summer months when the observatory opens its doors to the public and they can even observe from the big telescope directly! Be aware, the conditions in the mountain are harsh even if it is summer, so take your coat with you for the voyage to the universe.