If stars are watched, it means that someone needs it

Five reasons to visit the Engelhardt Observatory at the Kazan Federal University

If stars are watched, it means that someone needs it
Photo: Maksim Platonov

The V.P. Engel'gardt Astronomical Observatory near Kazan is a real scientific and historical attraction of Tatarstan. It may be of interest to an ordinary family from Kazan and to a world-famous scientist-astronomer. This science centre is unique in its location, museum collection, and amazing technology. Correspondents of Realnoe Vremya visited the observatory and presented five reasons for visiting the observatory in anticipation of Cosmonautics Day.

Reason #1: Possibility to touch the stars

The Engelhardt Observatory gives visitors the opportunity to observe celestial objects live through a telescope, although to realise this, you need to manage to come here when sky is clear.

Yulia Bulatova, the deputy director of the Engelhardt Astronomical Observatory, head of the KFU Planetarium, showed a life hack: on the Internet, one can find out when the sunrise and sunset of the sun and moon are expected in Tatarstan. The information about the dates online is presented in a table format — so visitors will know whether they will have an opportunity to see the stars through a telescope when they come to the observatory. For example, on April 12, Cosmonautics Day, even with a clear sky, there will be no opportunity to see the moon.

Engelhardt Observatory gives visitors the opportunity to observe celestial objects live through a telescope, although to realise this, you need to manage to come here when sky is clear. Photo: Maksim Platonov

One should take the opportunity to look at the stars through a telescope in real, so to speak, time. Of course, in the local planetarium, the stars can be seen under any conditions — here visitors will see a unique panorama of the starry sky, projected on a semicircular dome. But yet, as Bulatova describes it, it's “a different kind of energy”. The observatory has other telescopes for this purpose, which are not in plain sight for everyone — one can see more than usual with them.

Reason #2: Film screenings on the ceiling

But even if the weather is not as good as we would like, there is always a star hall of the planetarium at the disposal of visitors.

The 3D journey in it makes a really fantastic impression: once your eyes get used to the darkness, you will see the constellations. If you don't know how to distinguish them, it doesn't matter— they will explain everything to you and show you with a laser pointer. A tour of outer space will shake not only your consciousness, but also the vestibular apparatus: the camera, sometimes, moves between stars and even galaxies faster than the speed of light. The room itself is like a cinema, only you need to look at the ceiling.

By the way, about the cinema. Under the dome, one can look not only at the stars, there are also film screenings on the corresponding topic. In the films accompanied by surround sound, you can learn something new about astronomical science, its history, the structure of our galaxy, its mysteries, and much more. It is forbidden to take photos in this hall (any light sources interfere with viewing), so try to imprint what you see in your memory.

3D journey makes a really fantastic impression. Photo: Margarita Golovatenko

It feels really amazing. Pictures of the starry sky and distant galaxies, as if falling on you from the ceiling, are fascinating. Here it's hard not to experience emotions.

Reason #3: Interactive tours and unique vintage telescopes

Of course, the university observatory has a very rich history, connected with the personalities of its founders, scientific heritage, and historically important decisions for society and science. It will be useful to know about this. Just think of it, this observatory was founded 120 years ago! Even a person far from astronomy after visiting the tour begins to understand a little about this science.

In the main building of the observatory, one can see unique telescopes, an old sundial and many other tools for learning about other worlds. You will be told how our ancestors made the first astronomical steps, what the glory of Kazan University is in this sense (and it is very famous, but we will not spoil it) and how astronomical science is developing now.

In addition to the standard historical tours, there are also interactive ones. On these tours, visitors are allowed to interact with the exhibits and see how they work. For example, one can see live the principle of operation of the Tesla coil, which produces a high-frequency voltage. It looks spectacular, but scary!

Among the main instruments of the KFU Observatory, there are the meridian circle telescope, heliometer telescope, Zenith — telescope of Bamberg, Maksutov meniscus telescope (Geide astrograph), and AZT-14 telescope, modified and equipped with a CCD array. The main historical exhibit of the Engelhardt Astronomical Observatory is a 12-inch refractor built in 1875. By the way, it is quite functional.

In the main building of the observatory, one can see unique telescopes, an old sundial and many other tools for learning about other worlds. Photo: Maksim Platonov

Many of the telescopes in the collection have already worked their way out and are not used for observing celestial objects. For example, the zenith telescope, which was previously used to clarify the coordinates of objects in the celestial sphere, is now more of a tourist attraction — it is no longer necessary, since the world catalog of objects has already been compiled, and the coordinates of celestial bodies are precisely known. Such telescope is often shown to students for educational purposes, but it is especially admired by foreign guests: abroad, such telescopes, even if they remain, unlike the Kazan observatory, are not in a working environment, they are preserved under glass.

Reason #4: no “light pollution” and clean air

The fact that the Engelhardt Observatory is located outside the city is an important advantage over many other “colleagues”, including European research centres.

We know that the coolest and most powerful telescopes in the world are located high in the mountains, at a great distance from civilization (for example, in the Andes). And there is a reason for this: to effectively observe the starry sky, minimal presence of light is needed. The so-called “light pollution” from the city makes it very difficult to observe celestial objects. But that's all right with it at the university observatory: you can look at the stars here without actually using telescopes — here they are, bright and sharp as tacks.

However, this coin has two sides: getting to the observatory is not so easy. Motorists will not have any problems, but public transport is a problem, especially in winter. It is possible to get here only by electric railway, and it takes about half an hour on foot to get from the station to the observatory. But, perhaps, the problem will be solved: as Bulatova said, the issue of transport has been raised at the level of the presidential administration of the republic.

The fact that the Engelhardt Observatory is located outside the city is an important advantage over many other “colleagues”, including European research centres. Photo: Maksim Platonov

Reason #5: It may be next UNESCO World Heritage Site

Let us remind that in December 2020, the Astronomical observatories of the KFU (and there are several of them, including the Engelhardt one, and the one that is part of the architectural ensemble of the Kazan University) included in the UNESCO tentative list.

So, perhaps, the complex of university observatories will become the fourth object in Tatarstan included in the World Heritage List.

They have been preparing for the nomination for a long time — the application for the inclusion of observatories in the preliminary list of Russian heritage had been prepared since December 2019. It has been approved, but there are still several stages to go through for inclusion in the UNESCO list.

The director of the observatory, Yury Nefedyev, explained that the task of inclusion in the UNESCO Heritage list was set here in 2005. According to Nefedyev, if the inclusion of a series of observatories in the list is finally approved, only technical work will remain. "“The rest — the intellectual part — has already been completed," he said, stressing that the Kazan Observatory is the only one that has no problems with inclusion in the UNESCO list.

The discussion of the possibility of including the observatory in the World Heritage List with the director general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova. August, 2017. Photo: Maksim Platonov

When can one come?

The planetarium is open daily, except Tuesdays, according to the schedule and by prior reservation. Due to coronavirus restrictions, the load is incomplete. The planetarium, taking into account the restrictions on the occupancy of the hall by 70%, can only accommodate 57 people, so pre-registration is required.

The standard planetarium programme consists of three parts and is designed for three hours: an interactive tour, an astronomical lecture and a film in the star hall. According to Bulatova, if the interactive programme is often repeated, then the rest is not identical. The programmes are designed for different age groups, and the recommended age for visiting is older than six years old. Full information about the operating mode of the observatory can be found on the official website, where one can also read the description of films and lectures.

By Margarita Golovatenko
Tatarstan