How one woman is racing to restart her uncle's spectacular scientific legacy: a radio-optical telescope left in limbo on the slopes of Armenia's highest mountain.
The lonely control room in the photo above is an aesthetic holy grail for urban explorers. Unlike most empty, Instagram-famous Soviet-era buildings, however, this site has a chance of being restored once more into the hub of activity and scientific research that it once was as part of the Orgov Radio-Optical Telescope.
The 54-meter-wide Orgov telescope dish is one of the most sensitive of its kind in the world. Radio telescopes are used to study deep space by picking up faint radio waves given off by distant stars and galaxies that can be visualized into an image.
Views of deep space are usually limited by the space dust that obscures some objects from view, but radio telescopes can "see through" the dust, enabling them to record objects invisible to optical telescopes.
Radio telescopes have also impacted everyday life. An Australian radio telescope engineer used his expertise to fine-tune WiFi signals into the lightning-fast wireless Internet connections most of us enjoy today.
The Orgov telescope, named after the mountainside village that it was built next to in the 1980s, first began operations in 1986 as the brainchild of Paris Herouni, a famed Soviet-Armenian physicist and engineer whose late career interests expanded into widely disputed research on the origins of modern human society, which he claimed first emerged in Armenia.
After battling with the "scientific mafia" of Moscow to successfully establish his radio-optical telescope, Herouni's mountainside project, like most other large Soviet-funded operations, was thrown into uncertainty amid the breakup of the U.S.S.R. and the wars that broke out in the Caucasus throughout the 1990s. But Herouni was able to keep the telescope running up until his death in 2008.
By 2012, the telescope ceased operation, and today, Herouni's niece, Arevik Sargsyan, is leading the drive to restart the device. The ambitious battle has attracted international support, as well as surprisingly harsh criticism inside Armenia.
"I'm proud that Paris Herouni was not only my uncle, but also my teacher," Sargsyan told RFE/RL as she made tea inside her office overlooking central Yerevan where she works as a professor at the National Polytechnic University.
"He was unique, a kind of two-in-one operator," Sargsyan recalls. "He was a very skillful scientist, but also a great manager of people."
She says she learned from her uncle to "expect everyone standing in front of you has the same or greater intelligence than you."
After several back-and-forth discussions, Sargsyan came close to reaching an agreement to restart the telescope with Armenia's previous government. Then the 2018 revolution swept a new administration to power, and Sargsyan says that despite detailed plans for how to get the telescope operating once more -- and a lineup of foreign experts backing her claims -- "this government is not able to make an appropriate decision," she says. "We have no 'yes' or 'no' from them."
In her fight to gain control of the telescope, Sargsyan says she has become "enemy No. 1" of the government agency in charge of her uncle's telescope and claims, "They hate me."
Armen Voskanian is the deputy director of Armenia's National Body For Standards And Metrology and the man tasked with deciding the future of the Orgov telescope. He told RFE/RL by phone that the issue of restarting the device is more than a simple issue of budgeting.
"It's not just money, it's lots of things. It's a long, complicated topic," he said.
Over the past decade of disuse, the telescope has developed several faults that would need to be repaired before scientific work can begin in earnest.
In November 2019, Sargsyan attended a government hearing on the fate of the telescope that descended into a bitter shouting match. One academic during the 2019 hearing insisted the telescope should be turned into "scrap metal" and called Sargsyan "a liar on every level."
The scientist says she does not understand the apparent anger toward the telescope but says "one of mankind's common characteristics -- everywhere, not just Armenia -- is jealousy. People are jealous of great scientists like Herouni, and they don't want to help."
Sargsyan estimates an initial fund of $3.6 million will be needed to get the telescope operational once more, an amount she maintains she can fund through private sponsorships.
"We have a team of professionals. We have supporting institutions in Armenia and abroad," Sargsyan says. "We just need to get access, then we can begin."