Europe’s youngest country has inaugurated its new observatory and planetarium, and folks far and away joined the festivities.

Kosovo Observatory and Planetarium
In a cornfield close to the town of Shtime, some 20 miles southwest of Kosovo's capital, Prishtina, the twin domes of the planetarium and observatory rise above the cornfields.
Diana Hannikainen

What do you do when you have a passion for astronomy, but your country doesn’t have the facilities for you to pursue your interest? If you’re Pranvera Hyseni, you set about planning and building an observatory and planetarium.

Just shy of 10 years ago, Pranvera had a bold vision for astronomy in her country and, along with a group of like-minded friends, founded Astronomy Outreach of Kosovo (AOK). The nonprofit’s mission is to bring the science and joy of astronomy to the people of Kosovo through outreach programs, such as public lectures and star parties, and ultimately, to establish a comprehensive astronomical facility for the country.

After much hard work and not a few tears, last week the ribbon was cut at Kosovo’s first observatory and planetarium. People from as far afield as the United States, Italy, Switzerland, and Turkey traveled to Kosovo to participate in this special moment.

In a Cornfield Outside the Capital

Pranvera Hyseni is a force of nature when it comes to pursuing her passion. Currently a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Pranvera studies the composition of meteorites. Nevertheless, she found the time and energy to not only engage in cutting-edge research but also to establish her country’s premier astronomical facility.

Several years ago, Pranvera along with fellow AOK members approached the government of Kosovo to request funding to help AOK bring astronomy — and through astronomy, science in general — to the public.

It took persuading and perseverance — often long-distance on Pranvera's behalf, for she was already studying in the U.S. But eventually the government agreed to provide financial aid. Then the country held elections, and new officials were voted in who had to be persuaded all over again! Finally, AOK succeeded (again) in convincing the government that their mission was worthy and received a donation dedicated to the observatory's construction.  

Kosovo Observatory and Planetarium
The National Observatory and Planetarium of Kosovo is all bedecked for opening day. The balloons hanging above the entrance at left kept popping randomly in the stifling heat, startling many a guest. At left on the rooftop is the 6-meter telescope dome.
Diana Hannikainen

Inauguration Day

On the morning of the inauguration, the place was a flurry of activity — AOK members and their friends and family were all busy preparing for guests due later that afternoon. Many of us merely visiting chatted with the younger members of AOK who kept us company and informed us of the history and customs of their country. At some point during the morning hours, we learned that the Speaker of the Assembly of Kosovo, Glauk Konjufca, wanted to meet those of us who had traveled from abroad. So, we all piled into various cars and headed back into downtown Prishtina.

Opening ceremony Kosovo Observatory and Planetarium
Pranvera doing what she does best — sharing her passion and enthusiasm for astronomy with a crowd. She was the last speaker before the official ribbon-cutting ceremony on June 19, 2024.
Diana Hannikainen

Perhaps one of the most moving things we witnessed was the corridor leading into the Parliament building, which is painted black and has sayings in Albanian and English in stark white font, quoting survivors of the massacres of the 1990s. Hanging overhead are the keys representing Kosovars whose remains are still missing. Keys joined together signify members of the same family. One cannot be untouched witnessing tangible symbols of the genocide that the Republic of Kosovo endured. After our inspiring meeting with the Speaker, we all dutifully piled back into our cars to return to observatory in time for the opening ceremony. We got to know the roads from Prishtina to Shtime really well!

When we came back to the observatory, the inauguration ceremony opened with three national anthems: Albania’s, Kosovo’s, and that of the United States. It was speech-time next, and several foreign guests moved the audience to tears expressing their own emotions. Officials also paid tribute, among them the mayor of Shtime, Qemalj Aliu, as well as the Minister for Education, Science and Technology, Arbërie Nagavci. Then Pranvera took the stage and passionately shared her story with the riveted crowd, before the ribbon-cutting ceremony commenced. With that, the country’s first observatory and planetarium was officially inaugurated.

You did it, Pranvera! You did it, Astronomy Outreach of Kosovo!! To reflect Pranvera's words during her moving speech: “You won!”

Celestron 14-inch in Kosovo Observatory
Pranvera describes the 14-inch telescope donated by Celestron to distinguished guests — pictured here are Kosovo's Minister for Education, Science and Technology, Arbërie Nagavci, and the mayor of the town of Shtime, Qemalj Aliu.
Diana Hannikainen

Generous Donors

Through her social media presence, Pranvera caught the eye of the international community early on. Telescope manufacturer Celestron donated the 14-inch telescope that is currently mounted in the 6-meter observatory dome. Three members of the Celestron team — Ben Hauck, Kevin Kawai, and Robert Reeves — traveled to Kosovo to help install and step the telescope through first-light procedures. The observatory is named Celestron in the company's honor.

Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project at Kosovo Observatory
Stephen Ramsden (Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project) shows an eager audience stunning views of the Sun through the 6-inch solar telescope he donated the observatory. At back is the 9-meter dome of the Jack Dunn Planetarium.
Diana Hannikainen

In addition to donating several of his own telescopes in the past to AOK, Stephen Ramsden, founder of the nonprofit Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project, also endowed the observatory with the largest solar telescope in Eastern Europe. This 6-inch solar telescope occupies the roof of the building — the Stephen Ramsden Solar Observatory, as it's now called.

Many others stepped up to support the project — among them long-time planetarium guru Jack Dunn, who supplied the equipment for the 9-meter domed planetarium; Hap Griffin, with whom Pranvera has chased asteroids (see the Pro-Am Conjunction column in the November 2023 issue of Sky & Telescope); former NASA engineer James Wehner; dedicated friends of AOK such as Keith Hammons; as well as various organizations, including the Nebraska Star Party. The local Rushiti family, several of whom are longtime AOK members, including the current head of the board, donated the land upon which the observatory rises. 

But without a doubt, the observatory and planetarium would not have come about without the incredibly hard work and dedication of Pranvera and her colleagues at AOK. Congratulations to Milaim, Mimoza, Orhan, Tuana, Gresa, Bujar (thank you for all the translating!), Euron, Arta, Majlinda, Faton, Besart, Isra, Arbrita, and many others!!

Speakers at Kosovo Observatory inauguration
The fun didn't stop on inauguration day — the following day we were treated to a series of incredibly inspiring talks given by several invited guests, including lunar expert Robert Reeves, Pranvera's PhD supervisor Myriam Telus, Santa Cruz professor Puragra "Raja" Guhathakurtha (at left), Stephen Ramsden, former NASA mission control engineer Terry Watson, and former NASA engineer James Wehner. To wrap it all up, Rodrigo Araya (at right), among other things moderator of Space Hipsters, entertained us with a marvelous talk for which he'd contacted various stars in the astronomical community who sent in short videos of congratulations to Pranvera and AOK. With Dario Kubler's help we heard the lovely words of Charlie Duke (in the photo).
Diana Hannikainen

Personal Reflection

When Pranvera and her astronomy friends founded AOK in January 2015, their country was not yet seven years old. The young republic declared independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008 (some 104 member countries of the United Nations today recognize it as a sovereign state). Not one family has remained untouched by the horrors of the wars that ravaged their country in the 1990s.

When you speak with the Kosovar, you learn that for many children their only access to school during those years was if someone opened up their house to serve as an impromptu schoolhouse. You learn of massacres in which more than 400 Kosovar lost their lives in one fell swoop just 500 meters from Shtime’s town hall. You learn that Shtime, of course, wasn’t the only town to lose a significant fraction of its citizens in brutal fashion. You also learn of men who still hold on to their weapons in case their country sees a repeat of the 1990s.

But you also learn that the Kosovar are the kindest and most generous and most welcoming souls on the planet. Yet, while the past is still near in Kosovo, the country's people are looking forward without bitterness. And what better way to do that than with a fantastic facility that will open up the windows of the universe to the curious citizens of a young country.

I left my heart in Kosovo. And I’m fairly sure that all the lovely people I met who’d traveled from afar did the same. Until we all meet again — faleminderit.

Comments


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AstroMm

June 28, 2024 at 9:04 pm

This could have been a good article about a wonderful astronomical development. However, the author, Dr. Diana Hannikainen, marred it with her immature comments about politics. Her writing shows that she does not understand the region and the context, or to put it bluntly, the forces involved, the boundary and the initial conditions.

It is particularly disrespectful how easily and irresponsibly she throws in the word “genocide”. No, it should never be used as a cute phrase. Never without the context, never without the justification.

The visit and conversations she had left an emotional impact on Dr. Hannikainen, alright. But this is exactly at the root of the Kosovo tragedy: self-righteous emotions. Do people in the region need more of that, from someone on the outside, who has the privilege of a cooler head and rational analysis?

The author also did not seem to realize how much this astronomical development means towards the establishment of normalcy in the region which still suffers, not from what happened decades ago but from negative developments right now. Or that there are timid initiatives to establish wider contacts and collaboration among the amateur astronomers in the area, with eyes towards the future, not towards the past.

Most of all, this is an astronomy magazine. Readers come to this site to read about astronomy. Mixing in politics diminishes the work of the people and sponsors involved with this project. Let’s leave politics for other venues, where these issues can be discussed properly, not superficially, as was done in this article.

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IntlTrvlr

July 7, 2024 at 7:24 am

I was at the opening of the Observatory in Kosovo and have been supporting AOK for a number of years, and know many of the board members quite well. As I write my response, I am sitting in Nis, Serbia. As an American, I have had no problems at all in Serbia. People have greeted me with respect and kindness. Yet I am troubled by some of the stuff I have seen in Serbia. In downtown Belgrade there is a banner that says "The only genocide that occurred in the Balkans was against the Serbs." Another by the airport says "Kosovo is Serbia". Kosovo declared independence in 2008, 16 years ago, yet Serbia refuses to recognize an indepence recognized by over 100 countries. At the Observatory opening a representative from N Macedonia was there. There were no Serbians. I understand the tortured history of the Balkans better than most Americans. I don't blame the people of Serbia for the genocide that occurred in Bosnia, Croatia, or Kosovo, but rather the government at the time. That conflict was 25 years ago, yet tensions remain. Kosovars are looking to the future while recognizing the past. The memorial to Adem Jashari is a place I took my American friends recently, and a good reminder of the past. Instead of denying genocide, perhaps Serbia should also look to the future. Including the author of this comment. Bring Serbians to the Observatory in Kosovo. I am sure you would be welcome as fellow lovers of science. As I have been welcomed by Serbians, who prefer to look to the future and not dwell on the past.

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AstroMm

July 10, 2024 at 4:30 am

Dear IntlTrvlr, if you live in Balkans then you know that everyone there sees themselves as victims. And everyone has very verified, good reasons for that. I posted the comment above because I am happy to see an astronomy news from Kosovo, a welcome development which takes people's eyes and hearts away from the centuries long cycle of mutual violence and hate, towards more meaningful life. This is the wish of many people in Kosovo, and from everywhere else in the Balkans. You can't miss it if your eyes are open. However, if you and Dr. Hannikainen think otherwise, that's the world you chose, and that will be your contribution to this suffering region.

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Kevan Hubbard

July 2, 2024 at 8:41 am

Very interesting article .I visited Kosovo some years ago getting the bus from Skopjie to Pristina and back.I can't remember if,other than the Sun,I saw any astronomical objects while there.I think that might have been the time that south eastern Europe had a total eclipse over Thessolonika although over Skopjie it was about 95 percent and enough for it to feel cold but not to go dark .

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