Wartime Skygazing: An Amateur Astronomer in Ukraine – Sky & Telescope

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Plakha Alexander with Sky Watcher telescope
Plakha Alexander poses with his Sky Watcher 305mm Newtonian telescope on Sky Watcher EQ6 mount.
All photos credited to Plakha Alexander

On February 24, 2022, a waning crescent Moon hung in the sky above Ukraine. From 240,000 miles away on the lunar surface, Plakha Alexander thought, all would have appeared deceivingly peaceful on our blue planet. But the amateur astronomer, business owner, and Ukrainian knew reality to be quite different. He was using his own telescope to observe the Russian advance.

Russian advance, seen through telescope
Plakha used his telescope to photograph the Russian advance.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine completely upended Plakha’s life and his small business selling astro gear, but he still holds defiantly to the dream of peace for his country. Recently I had the opportunity to talk to Plakha about his unique perspective as a Ukrainian citizen and as an amateur astronomer coming to terms with an uncertain future.

With a strong interest in astronomy since his childhood, Plakha eventually built an observatory near Donetsk, in the now-disputed Donbass region of southeastern Ukraine. He hosted friend and mentor John Dobson for a visit to his observatory in 2006, and the two spoke about the importance of popularizing astronomy.

John Dobson visit
Plakha and staff stand with friend and mentor John Dobson in better times.

But Plakha had to change course in 2014, when Russian mercenaries occupied part of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and annexed Crimea. “Russian mercenaries bombed my house and my observatory,” Plakha says. “I was forced to move to Kharkiv.”

Observatory near Donetsk, Ukraine
The observatory near Donetsk.
Donetsk observatory
Plakha poses with his cat at his old observatory.

Two years later after rebuilding his life in a new city, Plakha started his own company, Astro-Gadget.net. Plakha says he has sought to follow the values he learned from Dobson, who advocated creating useful products for astronomy enthusiasts at affordable prices. The online store fulfilled that goal, offering astrophotography aids, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi adapters for controlling telescopes, USB interface cables, kits for adding computer control to focusers, anti-dew heaters, and much more.

Software programmers and electronics and design engineers from all over Ukraine crafted the products. “The most important thing,” Plakha adds, “is that they are all amateur astronomers with extensive experience, and we are all united by a love for astronomy.”

Everything was going well with the fledgling company when uncertainty once again reared its ugly head. Last December, the Russian military began amassing along Ukraine’s border. But Plakha remained certain Russia wouldn’t invade. “I thought that Putin was bluffing, intimidating, and just showing strength,” he says.

“In the first days of the invasion, we experienced a shock,” Plakha continues. “Kharkiv was heavily bombed, houses were burning, and people were dying.”

Devastation in Ukraine
Plakha passed “Freedom Square,” reduced to rubble, as he removed equipment from the Kharkiv office of Astro-Gadget.

Prior to the war, Plakha had purchased a house in Kharkiv and dreamed of building a new observatory. But as the bombs fell, he realized he would lose his dream a second time. He spent the first few days of the war with his family in a shelter, venturing out between the shelling and bombing to help the injured.

About a week after the Russians’ initial push had stalled, Plakha took a brief window of opportunity to move his family, staff, and business to a safer location in western Ukraine. That action wasn’t without its own risks. During the move, a Russian shell landed in his front yard; fortunately for him and his neighbors, it did not explode.

Russian shell
A Russian shell (circled) landed in the front yard of Plakha’s house in Kharkiv. Fortunately, it did not explode.

Yet, even though the Russian army has destroyed thousands of homes and buildings as well as the city’s infrastructure, Plakha says he still envisions one day returning to Kharkiv to restart his dream. For now, though, he is resigned to staying in the west.

“I think Russia no longer has the power to take over all of Ukraine,” he says with hope. “Therefore, the western regions of Ukraine will remain safe, and here we can continue our work. . . . Life must go on.”

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