Two hours by car from Yerevan, nestled amongst grazing cattle and the farmers who tend to them, is the abandoned remains of a telescope which once searched for signs of life beyond our world.
Space exploration was initially a practical concern: rocket technology solved the problem of sending huge nuclear payloads over long distances. But the Space Race soon evolved into something of much greater symbolic significance. Space became the dramatic arena for an ideological and intellectual struggle between communism and capitalism. If the Soviets won the Space Race, they would win the Cold War.
During the Cold War, scientists in the US and the USSR had almost unlimited budgets when it came to space research. For many, their primary objective was not politics, but the exploration of other worlds. Earthy ideologies like communism and capitalism held no pull in their orbits. At the peak of the Cold War in 1971, 44 of the world’s most renowned scientists from the US and the USSR, including Carl Sagan, came together in Byurakan, a small mountainous Armenian village. They were there for four days to discuss the challenges of communicating with intelligent life beyond our planet as part of the first Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI) conference.
The search for intelligence beyond our world captured the attention of the USSR. Against the backdrop of Mount Aragats, a radio telescope to capture and decode radio signals from space was commissioned by the Soviet state. Construction of the 54 metre Orgov Radio-Optical Telescope took place between 1975 and 1985. Operational in 1986, it captured a radio-flare on the Etta Gemini star within its first few minutes of operation.
It was once considered one of the most powerful radio telescopes in the world, but it fell into disrepair after the collapse of the Soviet Union due to lack of funding. In the early 2000s, a plan to restore the telescope was proposed, but the hefty price tag of $200-250 million to get it working again, means that little progress has been made.
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