Exploring the Sky: The Skinakas Observatory on Crete

Everything astronomers need is available in Crete: High mountain peaks, a mild climate and, what’s more, a large number of clear-sky nights.

The Skinakas Observatory is a research facility jointly operated by F.O.R.T.H., the University of Crete, and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics of Germany. The mission of the observatory is twofold: to provide modern education in astronomy to university students and to support astronomical observations.

Since its inception, the Observatory of Skinakas has been a beacon of progress in the field of astronomy. Its contributions extend beyond Crete to the entire nation of Greece, making it a cornerstone in the scientific landscape of the country.

skinakas observatory in crete greece
The Skinakas Observatory with the lights of Heraklion in the background. Photo by Vasilis Flouris

Establishment and History

The establishment of the Skinakas Observatory dates back to 1984. In the same year, the construction of the road to the observatory, located on a mountain peak, began.

In 1986, the observatory was inaugurated and had its first encounter with cosmic phenomena when it observed Comet Halley through a Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope.

In 1988, the observatory expanded its infrastructure with the completion of a guesthouse, which hosted the first School of Observational Astrophysics in Greece. As the years went by, the observatory embarked on a journey of technological advancement, installing larger telescopes. These include a 1.3m modified Ritchey-Chrétien telescope and a 0.6m fully robotic and web-driven Cassagrain telescope named “Ganymede”.

Location and surroundings

The mountain of Psiloritis (also known as Idi or Ida) on the island of Crete, Greece, serves as the proud home of the Skinakas Observatory. The observatory, located at an impressive height of 1,750m on Skinakas Peak, provides a remarkable vantage point for astronomical observations in the Mediterranean region.

The observatory, with its strategic location, is 50 km by car from the city of Heraklion. It’s also close to the historical town of Anogeia and the famous cave of Ideon Andron, adding a cultural richness to its scientific significance.

Facilities and Equipment

The Skinakas Observatory is a testament to modern technology, boasting a range of facilities, including a guesthouse, and a variety of instruments. Its well-equipped nature stands out among other telescopes relative to its size. The observatory houses three large telescopes:

  • a 1.3m modified Ritchey-Chrétien telescope
  • a 0.3m Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope
  • a 0.6m fully robotic and web-driven Cassegrain telescope.

The observatory is currently being upgraded for optical and quantum communications with low Earth orbit satellites, an initiative of the European Space Agency (ESA) SkinUP project.

Research and Observations

The Observatory’s research areas are diverse and fascinating, ranging from the study of interacting galaxies, planetary nebulae, supernova remnants, binary stars, magnetic fields and galactic dust, to blazar jets. Complementing this broad scope, the observatory conducts simultaneous observations in X-rays and optical wavelengths. A major focus is the study of active galactic nuclei.

In addition to research, the observatory plays an important educational role in the practical training and education of physics students. It has also hosted summer schools and open days, inviting the public into the fascinating world of astronomy.

Public Access and Visitor Information

The Skinakas Observatory extends its arms to the public, offering open days where visitors can immerse themselves in the realms of astronomy and technology. On these open days, visitors get the unique opportunity to view astronomical objects through the telescope after 20:30.

open day at  skinakas observatory

The high altitude location of the observatory can cause low temperatures, so visitors are advised to wear warm clothing. Visitors should also be careful when driving to the observatory as the road is narrow and parking is limited.

Contributions to Astronomy

The contributions of the Skinakas Observatory to the field of astronomy are remarkable and have an impact not only on Crete, but on Greece as a whole. A proof of its excellence is the collaboration of the Observatory with the Institute of Astrophysics – FORTH and the Department of Physics of the University of Crete. This partnership strengthens its research and educational efforts. The research and development of the Observatory has received recognition and support from various institutions, including the prestigious Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics.

Future Developments and Plans

The Skinakas Observatory is currently undergoing an upgrade for optical and quantum communications with low Earth orbit satellites as part of the ESA SkinUP project. The Observatory continues to make progress in the field of astronomy and astrophysics and plays a key role in the advancement of scientific understanding in Crete and Greece. The current director of the Skinakas Observatory, Prof. Vassilis Charmandaris, is the guiding force behind this vision and its goals. His leadership ensures that the Observatory remains a beacon of astronomical discovery and education.

Website: Skinakas Observatory in Crete

Greece Index