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Guardian of Star fields

The sky's scenery and the mysteries of the universe have enchanted mankind since ancient times. At Stephani our ancestors used to explain the reason for day and night, the ongoing seasons, the origin of the stars and other wondrous phenomena of our night sky, with myths, legends and folktales. But for the last four decades now, we have been turning to scientists to lead us through the dark infinity of the firmament. Their theories and discoveries have opened our imagination to space through the village's gate to man's final frontier: The Stephanion Observatory situated on Dragatoura Hill (trans. Field guard's outlook).

The Stephanion Observatory on Dragatoura Hill

The Foundation of the Stephanion Observatory
In spite of Greece's blue skies, a fact that contributed considerably to the development of the science of the Heavens by the ancient Greek philosophers, no observatory properly equipped for modern astrophysical observations was in operation in the country until the beginning of the 1960s. Although preparatory work for the selection of sites which could be suitable for the installation of an astrophysical observatory had been realised by the Greek National Committee for Astronomy, further progress was stalled due to the lack of necessary funding.

At that time foreign astronomers had an interest in Greece as well. In the beginning of 1964 a group of Dutch astronomers visited Greece in order to examine the possibility of installing in Greece a small reflector belonging to the Utrecht Observatory, which would then be used by astronomers of all astronomical institutions of the Netherlands. The group consisting of Adrian Blaauw and Jan Borgman of the Sterrenkundig Laboratorium Kapteyn in Groningen, S.J. de Kort, of the Astronomical Laboratory, Catholic University of Nijmegen and Anne B. Underhill, of the Astronomical Observatory "Sonnenborgh" in Utrecht, attended a meeting of the Greek National Committee for Astronomy in Athens during which the existing climatological data for various sites in Greece was examined. On the basis of these discussions it was decided to investigate more closely the regions of Argolis and Corinthia situated on the Peloponnese in Southern Greece. In the spring of 1964 the Dutch Group accompanied by Greek professor Lyssimachos N. Mavridis of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, visited for the first time the area of the village of Stephani. After also visiting several other locations in Argolis and Corinthia the Dutch astronomers returned to the Netherlands for further consultations with the relevant Dutch authorities.

It wasn't until February 1966 that the plans for the new Observatory took shape, when the NATO Science Committee granted to professor Lyssimachos N. Mavridis and German professor Heinz Neckel of the Hamburg Observatory a research grant of 14.000 US$, for the installation of a 38 cm reflector belonging to the Hamburg Observatory and the execution of photoelectric observations in Greece. Based on the experience gained by the visits of 1964, Mavridis and Neckel decided to install the telescope on a hilltop nearby the village of Stephani at an altitude of 800 m. Thus the Stephanion Observatory was born and Hellenic Astronomy entered a new age.
The photoelectric observations with the German 38cm reflector, which was equipped with a photoelectric photometer for carrying out observations in the U,B,V colours of the international U,B,V system, started in March 1967 and continued until September 1970, when the NATO project was terminated and the telescope was transported back to Hamburg. The German team under H. Neckel carried out photoelectric observations of M-Type stars with the telescope, while the Greek team of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki focused on photoelectric observations of galactic cepheids.

The 38cm reflector of the Hamburg Observatory in Stephanion in 1968
The Stephanion Observatory in 1969

The Satellite Tracking station of the French CNES
Only shortly after the decision had been made in favour of the location of Stephani, a delegation of French scientists of the French Centre National d' Etudes Spatiales (CNES) visited Greece in search for a suitable location for the installation of a satellite tracking station. France had just become the 3rd nation next to the USA and the USSR to claim space power status by launching satellites into orbit. Two satellite tracking stations were already in place at the Observatoire de Haute-Provence in France and at Colomb-Bechar in Algeria, but in order to achieve more accurate tracking, a third station situated in the Eastern Mediterranean was needed. The location of the Stephanion Observatory in Greece was considered ideal for that purpose.
The satellite tracking station started operation in October 1966 - a couple of months prior to the German reflector- under the direction of Pierre Foussier Equipped with one Doppler tracking and one Laser ranging station, the station held track of three French satellites: D1A Diapason, D1C-Diademe1 and D1-D Diademe2, that were subsequently launched during 1966-1967 from the French base at Hammaguir, Algeria with the Diamant rocket, the first launch system not built by either the USA or the USSR that was later to become the predecessor of all European launcher projects. The satellites were designed for experimental geodetic studies using Doppler effect and laser telemetry techniques. The Diademes were also destined for the installation of a navigational system by satellite.
The station was in regular operation until the End of August 1967, when it was transferred back to France after operation of the station at Colomb-Bechar came to and end when the treaty between the government of France and Algeria was discontinued. Stephanion's Doppler system was transported to the Space Center at Bretigny-sur-Orge in France and the Laser system to the Guiana Space Centre (CSG) in Kourou, French Guiana.

Satellite D1A Diapason
Laser telemetry technique
Satellite D-1C Diademe

Netherlands European Southern Observing Station
Based on their visit in 1964 and after a second visit to Stephani by A. Blaauw in July 1966, the Dutch astronomers finally decided to install at the Stephanion Observatory a 40 cm van Straaten Cassegrain reflector telescope belonging to the Utrecht Observatory, that was equipped with a photoelectric photometer for carrying out photoelectric observations of variable stars. The operation of the telescope which was used by astronomers of all astronomical institutions of the Netherlands started in July 1967 and Stephani became known as the "Netherlands European Southern Observing Station" (NESOS). The station was administered by a special steering committee consisting of representatives of different astronomical institutions of the Netherlands. Adrian Blaauw, J.J. de Kort and Jan Borgman successively chaired the committee, while first Mart de Groot and later J.R.W. Heintze were appointed Directors of NESOS. The Dutch astronomers were first accommodated in a trailer and later in the building that had housed the French telescope. The project continued until September 1973, when the telescope was transported back to Utrecht, after the Netherlands became member of the ESO (European Southern Observatory).

The 40cm van Straaten reflector in 1969

The 30-inch Cassegrain reflector of the AUTH
The photoelectric observations carried out with the 38 cm reflector of the Hamburg Observatory and the 40cm van Straaten reflector of the Utrecht Observatory confirmed the suitability of the site of Stephani for the installation of a modern Greek astrophysical observatory. For this reason the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki decided to install a 30-inch Cassegrain reflector telescope with asymmetric mount on the grounds of the Stephanion Observatory. Known as a "light collector", the telescope started observations in July 1971 and has over the past 35 years proved its excellent suitability in the observation of variable stars. The telescope has been used mainly by astronomers of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, but also by scientists of the Democritus University of Thrace, the University of Ioannina as well as by numerous astronomical institutions outside Greece for carrying out photoelectric observations of variable stars. Important observational research in the field of stellar activity (flare stars, RS CVn stars) was carried out with the Stephanion telescope, over 100 original papers containing results of the research were published until today in leading astronomical journals, which makes the Stephanion Observatory and its telescope one of the leading astrophysical observatories worldwide in the field of stellar activity. Due to its long tradition in observation programs the Stephanion Observatory is a very welcome partner in international campaigns of coordinated simultaneous multiwavelength observations of flare stars.

Prof. Lyssimachos Mavridis and the 30inch Cassegrain telescope in 1971

The Stephanion Observatory's legacy
The contribution of the Stephanion Observatory to Hellenic astronomy as well as the international scientific world has been significant.
It is also needless to say that the region benefited a great deal from the installation of the observatory at Stephani. Back in the 1960s the observatory contributed largely to the development of the infrastructure: The old gravel road leading from the town of Chiliomodi to Stephani passing through the villages of Klenia and Aghionori was surfaced with asphalt, facilitating access not only for the scientists but for the local population as well. In a time when much of the rural population in Greece still lived without electricity and telecommunications, power and telephone were distributed to Stephani -and consequently at the other villages as well- due to the installation of the observatory. Furthermore especially during the operation of the French satellite tracking station, the observatory employed many Stephanians as cooks, drivers, guards, gardeners and chambermaids.

The situation of multiculturalism created by the activities of the observatory in the early years of its operation was handled quite successfully. The diversity of cultural and educational background has represented no insurmountable boundary for the communication between the villagers and the scientists and has exerted a rather stimulating influence on the village, enlivening and enriching everyday life. Relations between astronomers and villagers have resulted in friendships that last until today and even in one marriage. Countless stories surrounding the observatory exist that could easily fill volumes.

The Stephanion Observatory and its research activity has enhanced and shaped the identity of our village, creating an interesting and attractive blend of cultural heritage and technology. After 40 years of operation the Observatory is irrevocably connected to the past, present and future of Stephani and represents an important asset of the cultural and scientific heritage of the greater region. The continuation of research activity at the Stephanion Observatory is of scientific and cultural importance with much to offer to future generations.


(The Stephanion Observatory, L.N. Mavridis, University of Thessaloniki)



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