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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lights Out at the Country's Oldest Observatory

MTThe observatory says the blackout means an end to 30 years of consecutive reports.
While space research organizations celebrated Cosmonauts Day on Friday, scientists at Russia's oldest observatory were not in a festive spirit. Much of the 163-year-old Pulkovskaya Observatory outside St. Petersburg spent the day in darkness after its power was cut off over unpaid electricity bills.

"Our main office is like Mount Ararat during the Great Flood," the observatory's deputy director Ivan Kanayev said by telephone. The main office is one of the few areas still receiving power.

"Everybody brought their computers over here to at least be able to do some work," Kanayev said.

Pulkovskaya Observatory, once a flagship of Russian and Soviet astrometrics, is funded from the federal budget through the Russian Academy of Sciences. But as the blackout shows, Kanayev said, those funds are far from adequate.

Local power supplier Lenenergo said it was forced to pull the plug after the observatory raked up bills of 820,000 rubles ($26,500) over six months.

"We are responsible for the production and distribution of electricity, as well as money collection," said Andrei Trapeznikov, spokesman for Lenenergo's parent company Unified Energy Systems. "The government orders us to collect payments in full. And with all due respect to the observatory, we are not responsible for its problems obtaining federal funding."

Kanayev said the matter is unlikely to be resolved any time soon because the Academy of Sciences has earmarked a scant 200,000 rubles for electricity bills in the second quarter.

The Pulkovskaya Observatory is far from the first state-funded organization to fall victim of a clampdown on power debtors.

At the beginning of the year, electricity was cut to several Space Forces units in the Far East after the Defense Ministry failed to transfer funds to pay electricity bills. Last month, the State Center for Applied Microbiology in the Moscow region -- an institute with a huge collection of deadly viruses including anthrax -- was warned that its power would be cut because it was $1.4 million in debt.

Trapeznikov said the Pulkovskaya Observatory received a number of warnings before the power was cut. "But their last payment, which was received by Lenenergo on March 15, amounted to 1,200 rubles [$38], and the debt is more than 800,000 rubles," he said.

When the final warning arrived in early April, observatory directors asked that the main office, the housing complex and boiler room be spared. The plea was granted.

However, Lenenergo's leniency is small consolation for the astronomers, who have not had use of much of their equipment since the electricity went off April 5.

"Observations must take place during specific times," Kanayev said. "Some objects are only visible for a period of time. Being unable to look for a month means that we are losing a year's worth of work.

"And I just wonder how silly it will look in our 30 years of consecutive reports when we will have to say that data is missing this year because we did not have electricity," he said.

The observatory, established in 1839, was a pet project of Tsar Nicholas I, who funded the construction and equipment purchase from his personal fortune. Over the next hundred years, the observatory became a world leader in tracking objects relatively close to Earth, Kanayev said. Pulkovskaya astronomers conducted the first proper observation of the first satellite Sputnik in 1957, he said.

Among the observatory's recent achievements is a program that combines optical and radio observation in a bid to spot objects as small as one centimeter in diameter at a distance of 40,000 kilometers from the Earth, Kanayev said. The second phase of this experiment, due to be held in a month, is threatened by the power outage, he said.

It was unclear Sunday how the observatory's electricity debt would be resolved.

The State Duma's education and science committee said it would lodge a complaint with the government as early as Monday.

The committee's deputy head Oleg Smolin blamed the government and UES head Anatoly Chubais for the blackout.

"This is not social capitalism or simply capitalism. It is bandit capitalism, just as Chubais himself called it," Smolin said, adding that science will remain in a critical state as long as the government continues to spend just 0.3 percent of gross domestic product to finance it.

"In developed countries, it has long been known that expenditures simply cannot be lower than 2 percent of GDP," he said.