Discover the stars at Višnjan Observatory

Višnjan Observatory, IstriaOne of the more unusual things you can do in Istria is visit Višnjan Observatory, near Porec. For the scientifically-minded, it’s a chance to look behind the scenes in some hot topics in astronomy, while for the rest of us, it is an unusual and entertainingly educational experience – even the building itself is gorgeous, worth seeing in its own right. I went to one of their open days, with friends John and Louise, and had a fascinating afternoon. Korado Korlevic, the man behind it, tells some wonderful tales: not only about astronomy and the important work done here, but also about druidic stone circles and early Christian churches; a telescope built on a shoe-string; and a friendly owl who prefers his flat to her own deluxe owl house!

 

Near-earth protection…

For a privately-funded, amateur-run telescope, Višnjan Observatory’s achievements have been amazing. It played a significant role in the development of near-earth astronomy and, for a while in the 1980s and 90s, was the world’s leading observatory Višnjan telescope, Istriafor spotting near-earth objects – like the asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs, or the meteor that recently exploded above Chelyabinsk.

Today, near-earth astronomy is a hot topic, with millions of dollars being invested in major detection arrays, scanning the whole night sky. Višnjan’s no longer at the forefront, but it continues to play a role as part of the Space Guard, doing follow-up work on objects discovered by the big arrays.

 

…and education

But, while the observatory’s astronomy activities are important, Korado is keen to stress that it has never been Višnjan’s primary function. “Our main role is educational,” he said, “opening the eyes of exceptional children, showing them what’s possible and inspiring our next generation of leading scientists.”Korado Korlevic, Visnjan Observatory, Istria

Working as a teacher, he established the Višnjan Astronomy Society in the 1980s to help motivate gifted children. “Kids like this don’t need teaching in the traditional sense,” he explained. “They just need a subject which will inspire them and someone to guide their exploration. We looked at all forms of science, and astronomy was the subject which most caught their imagination – so we built an observatory.”

The first observatory was built in Višnjan itself, by Korado and his students. “It was here we did a lot of our most important work,” he explained, “but gradually the town’s light pollution reduced our effectiveness, so we moved to our current location and built this new observatory in 2007.”

 

See for yourself

Before I went, I must admit I had my doubts. I’d looked at the observatory’s website and suspected it would be very dry, formal and rather boring. But John was very keen to go, so Louise and I tagged along. I shouldn’t have worried, the reality was the complete opposite. It was a very relaxed couple of hours and totally absorbing.

looking at sun's corona, Visnjan Observatgory, IstriaLooking through a field telescope at the sun’s corona, while an expert explained what I was seeing, was very special. As was standing in a druidic stone circle, while Korado explained the ancient solar calendar. Moving inside, we saw the big telescope and heard about the observatory’s history, work and goals – all so impressive. Its significance is out of all proportion to its size, not only in terms of the work it has done, but in the number of young scientists it has nurtured – all now holding important roles in astronomy, physics or engineering, because of the start and inspiration they received at Višnjan Observatory. And this work continues today: Višnjan is part of the Network of Youth Excellence and holds a Summer School of Science, with students attending from all around the world.

Astrofest, Višnjan observatory, IstriaKorado is the heart and soul of Višnjan Observatory. It was his vision and he’s still the driving force today. Passionate about education, Istria, astronomy and all forms of science, he is a born communicator, and effortlessly tailors what he says to the age, size and interests of his audience. We were given the ‘grown-up, interested in science’ talk – which we thoroughly enjoyed. But for a younger, less knowledgeable audience, they’ve got various props and games, many involving a big yellow ball as a stand-in for the sun.

Photo is of Astrofest, held annually at Višnjan Observatory’s stone circle

 

Please: donate generously!

The Višnjan teamWalking back to the car afterwards, John, Louise and I all agreed it had been a wonderful and unusual afternoon, and that Korado was an inspiration. As John said, it was definitely well worth the 200 kn donation we left in their box.

Višnjan Observatory’s open days are free of charge. Amazingly, despite their lack of funding, Korado and his team of volunteers charge nothing for their time. But they do accept donations, which they need desperately. The observatory receives no official funding and is financed by sponsors and donations … and, being good scientists, they’re hopeless about asking you for money. So yes, the visit is free, but if you enjoy it and appreciate the work being done here, please, please, give generously, so they can continue their work: saving us from incoming meteors and asteroids, and inspiring Agatha the owl & friend, Istriathe next generation of astronomers and rocket scientists.

Višnjan Observatory is usually open to the public from March to October, at 16:00 and then 21:00, every Saturday and some Thursdays, or by appointment. For the latest information and details on the programme see their Facebook page. Also see their website (please note, it hasn’t been updated for a while – something on Korado’s to do list.)

Agatha the owl and friend

 

 

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