Grevena’s Orliakas mountain is known for its wide variety of flora and fauna, including the more than one thousand species of mushrooms for which it is famous. Now, thanks to the vision of one man, the mountain will soon be famous for something else: an advanced space observatory.
As a child Thanassis Economou gazed up at the pristine sky over his hometown of Ziakas near Mt. Orliakas, and was drawn to looking more deeply into space. Decades later in 2007, during an event held in his honor in his hometown, the idea for an observatory came to Economou, a NASA veteran and an astrophysics professor at the University of Chicago.
Economou set out to make his idea a reality. Unfortunately, construction of the 2.5 million euro observatory was delayed for two years because the area where it was to be built was designated as forest land. The gordian knot was eventually cut through a partnership with the local municipality and the Aristotelion University of Thessaloniki. Through this partnership, the municipality and the university will now undertake the project.
The observatory will certainly benefit the local community. According to the latest figures, the prefecture of Grevena has a staggering 50 percent unemployment rate, which means 4,000 people are currently without a job. The construction of the facility will help the local economy by creating construction and tourism jobs.
What makes Economou happiest of all is the fact that the Astronomy Observatory of Orliakas (AOO) will capture the imagination of younger generations.
“Since the 1960’s I have been given the chance to take part in many NASA missions, on the Moon, Mars, the Comets and Jupiter – and I’m very happy about the successes we’ve had.”
What gives Economou the greatest pride, however, is “what I could do for the children of the area – for the schools in my home town.”
Through the AOO, children will be given the chance to experience the universe first hand, with the hope that some may be inspired to follow in Economou’s footsteps.
Apart from the sentimental reasons behind Economou’s choice of Orliakas as the physical site of the AOO, the mountain also has three qualities that are crucial to the success of an observatory.
First, it is one of the last remaining areas in Europe free from light pollution. Indeed, at an altitude of 5,250 feet, Mt. Orliakas is one of the darkest spots in Europe.
Second, unlike other mountain peaks, Orliakas exhibits a stable atmosphere which will allow the observatory to be used year-round. Third, the AOO site is very close to the national highways, the Egnatia Motorway, and local roads, facilitating both construction as well as future access.
Education: The observatory will include equipment and facilities tailored for students of all ages. Astronomy, Astrophysics and Technology classes will be taught on-site both online and offline.
Research: AOO programs and activities will contribute to European research programs and the observatory will host visiting researchers.
Observation: Researchers, visitors and even amateur astronomers in any location will have the capacity to observe the sky via the observatory through the Internet. Visitors will also be permitted to bring and install their own equipment in specially designed areas of the AOO.
Entertainment: During astronomical events such eclipses, solar events, comet flybys, planet alignments and full moons, the observatory will organize special events for the public.
For Economou, though, it is the impact on younger minds that is the most valuable contribution this observatory will have in area.
“Our effort in building the Astronomy Observatory of Orliakas seeks to motivate our young generation to ‘reach for the stars’ and become our future scientists, engineers and intellectuals – and be the envy of the entire world.”
Thanasis (Tom) Economou has been building instruments for interplanetary spacecraft since the mid-1960s. Currently he is associated with three of NASA’s robotic missions: the Mars Exploration Rovers, the Cassini mission to Saturn, and the now-complete Stardust mission to Comet Wild-2, which has been redirected to a second cometary target. Economou also built the Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer that successfully performed the first chemical analysis of martian rocks aboard the Mars Pathfinder rover in 1997. Working in the laboratory of Anthony Turkevich, he contributed to the alpha backscattering experiment of three robotic Surveyor space probes that landed on the moon in 1967-68. With Turkevich during the 1970s and 1980s, he also conducted basic nuclear physics research on the subatomic structure of matter using the most advanced particle accelerators at Los Alamos, Argonne and Fermi National Accelerator laboratories. During the 1990s they performed an important double beta decay experiment of Uranium-238 to Plutonium-238, suggesting for the first time that neutrinos consists of a small quantity of mass.