The Costitx observatory was opened in 1991.

13-12-2009Archive

The following is adapted from an article which appeared in the Bulletin on 22 February 2015.
 
The ancient history of Costitx involved a small Roman settlement near to the present-day village. This Roman connection helps to explain how Costitx acquired its name. It was derived from a Latin word meaning a small hill. The village stands a bit short of 150 metres above sea level. Not very hilly and not very high, but high enough for the Observatori Astronòmic de Mallorca and the Mallorca Planetarium.

If you're going to create an observatory, being fairly high up might make sense. But high in a Majorcan way decrees that access - to parts of the Tramuntana - is not as straightforward as it might be, while the microclimate of the mountains can create its own natural obstacle to the observer of the heavens: the dampness of its air. So, if the mountains are not ideal, where else would you put an observatory?

The reasons for Costitx being its home can be traced to two key factors. One is that the enthusiasts who first established an amateur observatory in the 1970s were from the neighbouring town of Sencelles. Their basic telescopic technology was, so a version of events goes, responsible for detecting the return of Halley's Comet in 1986.

This claim is not one that is today given a great deal of prominence, but claim there was nevertheless. And clearly these enthusiasts had made their mark. On the back of it came the impetus to establish a proper observatory. Enter into the equation the second key factor: Maria Antonia Munar. The former leader of the Council of Majorca, currently serving time because of her part in corrupt dealings, was the mayor of Costitx. She was also, from 1987 to 1995, the councillor for education and culture. Whatever might now be thought of her, she was undoubtedly important in garnering political support for the project and in realising it. The observatory became a reality in 1991.

One of the enthusiasts is the current director, Salvador Sánchez. Under his directorship the observatory has gained an important role in asteroid detection, pioneering the use of robotic telescopes and being responsible, among other things, for discovering asteroid 128036, otherwise now known as the asteroid Rafaelnadal. The Planetarium came into being around the same time as that asteroid was detected in 2003. It is, in a sense, the commercial wing of the observatory and this, the commercial aspect, is where the story of Majorca's observatory runs up against a problem.

The Council of Majorca provides the main source of funding for the Planetarium, but the observatory is seriously underfunded. The people who work there are paid through aid from the European Space Agency, but the funding situation has become critical. Last year, President Bauzá met the ministry of defence and asked for the observatory to come under its auspices and funding. His request didn't seem to get very far. Yet here is an observatory which, among various achievements, was the first to detect the (410777) 2009 FD Asteroid, considered by NASA to represent a high risk in terms of collision.

In 2011, the observatory was awarded a prize by the US Planetary Society for its contribution to the investigation of asteroids that pose potential danger to the Earth. In September 2012, the observatory discovered a new comet in the Jupiter family. In July 2013, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology confirmed the observatory's discovery of Supernova SN 2013dv, 575 million light years away. These have been some of the achievements.

The observatory is an example of how ambitions for the development of new technologies and innovation can occur in Majorca. For politicians and economists who desire technologically innovative diversification, it should be held up as an example of what can be achieved and what, by extension, can be used to give Majorca an international reputation for innovation and so potentially attract investment for technological innovation. But somehow the observatory and indeed the Planetarium slip under the radar. Neither is as well known as should be the case, a fault perhaps of promotional indifference.

Salvador Sánchez said last year that were it not for pride, the observatory would close. That in itself is a damning indictment of neglect. There are moves to use crowdfunding to improve a financial situation that has often been reliant on support from foundations, but surely there should be greater state funds for such an important facility.

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