From the December 2020 issue

Get ready for Starmus VI

The world-renowned festival announces a landmark event dedicated to Mars in 2021.
By | Published: December 23, 2020 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Starmus VI will focus on Mars exploration.
The sixth incarnation of the Starmus Festival, an event that has become one of the world’s most renowned science and art festivals, will take place September 6-11, 2021, in Yerevan, Armenia. World-class scientists, artists, astronauts, and the general public will gather to celebrate science communication and to share the latest discoveries in a number of scientific fields.

Created by Garik Israelian, an astrophysicist at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias in the Canary Islands, and Brian May, astrophysicist and lead guitarist of the iconic rock band Queen, Starmus is a combination of science and music that has featured presentations from prominent figures in many fields, from science to the arts.

Strong support

The festival will be held under the patronage of the president of the Republic of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian, and in partnership with the government. During his invited talk at the opening ceremony of Starmus V, held in 2019 in Zurich, Switzerland, Sarkissian invited the organizers of Starmus to hold the next festival in Armenia.

Mariner 9 launched May 30, 1971, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. On November 14, it reached Mars and became the first spacecraft to orbit a planet other than Earth.
Sarkissian is a scientist himself. He obtained a degree in physics from the Department of Theoretical Physics and Mathematics at Yerevan State University (YSU). He served as an associate professor of physics at YSU from 1976 to 1984, and in 1988 created YSU’s Department of Computer Modeling of Complex Physical Phenomena.

Sarkissian was elected president of Armenia in March of 2018, and began his five-year term April 9 of that year. On March 26, 2020, he signed into law a package of space activity legislation called Advanced Tomorrow, or ATOM, which promotes educational and economic development and will expand state and commercial space activity.

Armenia’s Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports will support and work in close partnership with the Ministry of High-Tech Industry to ensure that the festival is an outstanding event. Each organization will play an important role in different educational, scientific, and artistic activities.

Focus on Mars

In celebration of 50 years of exploration of Mars, Starmus VI will be dedicated to the Red Planet. In November 1971, NASA’s Mariner 9 became the first spacecraft to orbit another planet. One month later, the Soviet Union’s Mars 3 spacecraft became the first to achieve a successful soft landing on Mars.

The ancient site of Karahunj, often called the Armenian Stonehenge, is tantalizingly close to the location of Starmus VI.
Anna1894/Wikimedia Commons
These milestones were followed by dozens of missions that provided us with better images and information from Mars. In July 2020, three new spacecraft were launched toward the Red Planet: the Emirates Mars Mission, a project of the United Arab Emirates Space Agency; Tianwen-1, a combined orbiter and rover sent by the China National Space Administration; and Mars 2020, a NASA mission that combines the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter drone. All three will reach the planet in 2021.

Starmus tradition is to address pressing issues and screen films about its focus, and, in 2021, that will be the exploration of Mars. Previous screenings include the documentary Apollo 11 and The Spacewalker, a film about Russian astronaut and Starmus board member Alexei Leonov.

Nobel laureates Edvard Moser and Michel Mayor, Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke, “the father of the iPod” and Nest founder Tony Fadell, and co-inventor of CRISPR gene-editing technology Emmanuelle Charpentier are among confirmed presenters for 2021. The Starmus Advisory Board will continue to announce speakers and performers as they’re confirmed. For more information visit

Spectacular setting

Armenia is a country with a tradition of science that stretches back thousands of years. Ancient people there developed one of the world’s first calendars, making the switch to a 365-day year that combined 12 months of 30 days and one month of five days — the same system used by the Egyptians — around 500 b.c. In 2013, the country formed ArmCosmos, the Armenian Space Agency. Its stated goal is to launch the country’s first satellite.

Metsamor was an ancient industrial complex. Some archaeologists also think its people named the zodiacal constellations known at that time, some 4,000 years ago.
alpolano/Wikimedia Commons
The city of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, also boasts an incredible history. Founded in 782 b.c. as the fortress of Erebuni, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth. It now houses just over 1 million residents, so the amenities there are well suited to welcoming Starmus.

As both a large city and the capital, Yerevan offers visitors a wide variety of activities and institutions, including more than 50 museums. Of interest to Starmus attendees will be the Space Museum, the Museum of Science and Technology, and the Little Einstein Interactive Science Museum.

Beyond Starmus

If you’re planning to visit Armenia for Starmus and your interests are astronomical in nature, I suggest that you spend a few extra days touring both the ancient and modern astronomy sites in the country. Two ancient archaeological sites and one modern observatory are an easy drive from the capital. Starmus organizers are working to arrange tours to these sites. Be sure to sign up early.

The first destination ranks as one of Armenia’s premier ancient sites: Karahunj, often referred to as the Armenian Stonehenge. Its name is a combination of kara, meaning “stone,” and hunj (whose meaning is unclear, but sounds like “henge”).

Karahunj lies 60 miles (96 kilometers) southeast of Yerevan. It sits atop a mountain plateau at an elevation of 5,810 feet (1,770 meters). The site contains 223 stones, which vary in height up to 10 feet (3 m) and weigh as much as 10 tons. For comparison, Stonehenge, located on England’s Salisbury Plain, has roughly 100 stones. Some historians have suggested that the site was an ancient observatory. Various combinations of 17 of the stones line up with sunrise or sunset points at the equinoxes or solstices. Another 14 align with the extreme rising and setting points of the Moon.

Armenia is a land of an ancient culture, breathtaking landscapes, and also great human warmth and gastronomic traditions. At Starmus VI, you will taste the magic mixture of science and music. Having participated in most of the festivals, I have memories of moving encounters with the moonwalkers, with musicians who marked our era, and with scientists who advance knowledge. But don’t leave this land of history without exploring its monasteries. My favorite is Tatev, a monastery at the end of a rocky promontory overlooking deep canyons. Superb.
— Michel Mayor, Nobel laureate and astrophysicist
Garik Israelian
Other researchers contend that the site is a necropolis dating from the Middle Bronze Age, around 1500 b.c., and that many of the original stones had since been incorporated into a wall around the city. In 2004, the Armenian government officially named the site Karahunj Observatory.

When you’re through touring Karahunj, be sure to also visit the Sisian History Museum. Located in nearby Sisian, a town of some 15,000 residents, this small facility houses more than 2,000 regional artifacts, many from Karahunj.

The second ancient site on your list should be Metsamor, an easy 22-mile (36 km) drive due west from Yerevan. It’s just outside Taronik, a village of some 2,000 people, at an altitude of 2,800 feet (853 m). When Metsamor was discovered in 1963, it was determined to be both a metallurgical complex and an industrial center of the ancient world.

Indeed, the area around this site contained deposits of copper, gold, silver, iron, lead, zinc, antimony, mercury, and tin. Tin in particular was not a common metal in the ancient world, but alongside copper, it was an important component for making bronze.

Soon after archaeologists began work at Metsamor, they found a clay plate whose hieroglyph letters matched those of the early second millennium b.c. The letters mimicked the patterns of the 12 zodiacal constellations known at that time. This led researchers to conclude that they had uncovered traces of an observatory where the constellations were named some 4,000 years ago.

Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory has been operational since 1946. In that time, it has been the main research facility for several world-class Armenian astronomers.
Rita Willaert/Wikimedia Commons
As with Karahunj, touring Metsamor itself is just part one of visiting this site. Part two is a visit to the Metsamor Historical-Archaeological Museum-Reserve. This facility, which opened in 1968, contains nearly 30,000 items, almost all of which were discovered at the site.

The third destination to visit is much more modern: Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory, which lies 21 miles (33 km) northwest of Yerevan. Located at an altitude of 4,600 feet (1,400 m) on the slope of Mount Aragats, it was founded in 1946 by Armenian astrophysicist Viktor Ambartsumian. Among his many contributions was the discovery, in 1947, of stellar associations, which showed that star formation was ongoing in the Milky Way. The facility’s main telescope is a 2.6-meter Cassegrain reflector. It also has two Schmidt telescopes — a 1-meter and a 0.53-meter — for wide-angle imaging.

Beginning in 1965, Armenian astronomer Benjamin Markarian used a full-aperture objective prism, an attachment that records the spectra of thousands of objects simultaneously, on the 1-meter Schmidt telescope to undertake the First Byurakan Survey. The survey was published in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement in 1986. By studying the plates, which revealed galaxies as faint as magnitude 17.5, he discovered 1,500 galaxies that have bluer cores that emit far more ultraviolet radiation than normal galaxies. These objects are now called Markarian galaxies.

Starmus IV, held in 2016, was a tribute to one of the world’s greatest scientists, Stephen Hawking.
Max Alexander/Starmus
Deep-sky observers also might associate this astronomer’s name with a group of galaxies in the Virgo Cluster. Indeed, he discovered that a small pack of galaxies had common motions through space. Now called Markarian’s Chain, the group includes ellipticals M84 and M86, several other ellipticals and lenticulars, and the interacting pair known as the Eyes: NGC 4435 and NGC 4438.

Byurakan was also the host for the first Soviet-American Conference on Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence. In attendance were Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, Viktor Ambartsumian, Freeman Dyson, and many other notable scientists. Interestingly, the conference took place September 5-11, 1971, exactly 50 years before Starmus VI.

Come join us

The five previous Starmus festivals have been incredible events, but Starmus VI promises to outshine them all. You’ll not only hear scientists and astronauts speak, but also be able to interact with them throughout the event. Add to that the magnificent setting in Yerevan, Armenia, with all the amenities such a large city can offer. Then top it off with easy access to astronomy sites of the distant past and cutting-edge research that will continue far into the future. This is one event you won’t want to miss.