All around Greece enthusiasts have their eyes on the heavens

Stargazing has become popular in Greece: From Corfu to Lesvos and from Florina to Crete, groups of amateur astronomers meet to watch the sky on starry nights, hold astronomy lessons and star parties for the public, publish magazines as well as organizing the biennial Panhellenic Conference of Amateur Astronomy. The fifth conference will be held in Patras this year from October 5-7 ( Despite the increasing interference of light from major cities, which significantly decreases the number of astral bodies that are visible in the night sky, it is still possible to observe novae, planets, galaxies and stellar clusters in what is a relatively inexpensive hobby suited to all ages. A telescope costs from 200 euros «at a supermarket, to 400 euros» Costas Mavromatis, president of the Volos Astronomy and Space Society, told Kathimerini. «Even with a pair of 7×50 binoculars, an ordinary observer can discover amazing shapes and colors,» advises Aristotelis Kotinas, president of the Corfu Astronomy Society. Good telescopes cost as much as 1,500 euros and the hobby «can get expensive if you photograph the sky,» notes Antonis Pantelidis, president of the Florina branch of the Astronomy and Space Society. Formed last year, the branch has members between the ages of 18 and 70. The oldest branch is in Corfu, which was re-established in 1996, and celebrates its birthday on February 13. Originally founded in 1927, the Astronomy Society of Greece in Corfu won an award from the Athens Academy in 1932 for «its contribution to the promotion an propagation of science in Greece.» In 1924, Felix Samla Lames, a Frenchman after whom a crater on the moon was named, constructed a fully equipped domed observatory on Koyevina Hill, outside Corfu town. Unfortunately, it was totally destroyed by bombardment in 1940. At the time, the Society had around 800 members around the world and published a periodical called Urania, after the Muse of astronomy. When the branch was revived in 1996, it started publishing the journal again. Now the branch has 205 members and organizes lectures, school visits, and observations and photography by telescope. Equally active is the Volos branch, which has been in operation for 15 years and has 375 active members of all ages. The 12th Panhellenic Pupils’ Astronomy Competition ends on March 17. Since 2000, at the instigation of Dionysios Simopoulou, director of the Eugenides Planetarium in Athens, the male and female pupils who come first in the test spend 10 days training at NASA. This year, the top five will represent Greece in the First Astronomy-Astrophysics Olympiad in Thailand (November 30 – December 9). The Volos branch has a lending library, publishes a quarterly, Ouranos, and runs lessons on astronomy and space as well as a summer school in astronomy. Stargazing nights are held in Hania, Pelion, and at the 1st Senior High School, which has had three dioptric telescopes since 1967. More recently, the Athens-based Greek Astronomy Union «was formed in 2002, mainly by members of the Greek Amateur Astronomers’ Club, which dated from the 1990s. It has 80 active members, from students to retirees,» explains its general secretary, Yiannis Yiankos. While work is under way at the Pendeli Observatory, the group holds its meetings and lectures at the Athens planetarium. No special knowledge is needed for those who are interested in astronomy. «It does require a bit of a philosophical disposition, a thirst for knowledge beyond school and television. And for the sky, which has always fascinated humankind,» says Kotinas. Some members «collect measurements which are sent to international bodies and contribute to scientific research,» says Yiankos. But, as Panelidis notes, «incalculable light pollution, uncontrolled by the law, deprives humans of the right to gaze at the night sky.» Novice astronomers will learn the astronomical distances of the stars and galaxies, and will see «the relief of the moon, the four moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, the rings of Saturn, the Andromeda galaxy, and superb novae, far more beautiful than any painting,» says Kotinas. «They will feel how small they are in relation to the universe; they will become calm, romantic, philosophical and they will think beyond the ephemeral routine that stifles them.» Some members are planning a trip to Siberia to see the total eclipse of the sun in August 2008, while others plan to observe one in China in July in 2009. Sooner than that and closer to home, a total eclipse of the moon will be visible in Greece on March 3-4 (11.30 p.m. to 2 a.m.). This year unseasonably fair weather allowed more observations than usual in January, and some lucky observers saw a comet.