The cosmic ray research station on Mount Aragats sits at an altitude of 3,200 metres. The site in Armenia was constructed in 1943 to conduct top-secret research into atomic reactions for the development of nuclear weapons. Now the facility provides insight into thunderstorms and cosmic rays. The only way visitors can reach the base in winter is via a nine-mile (15km) climb through snow.
Arshak Mkrtchyan, a mountain guide, cuts a trail to the station in snowshoes in temperatures around -22C.
Arriving at the station at sunset, the wind is howling across the plateau and the temperature has plummeted to dangerous levels.
One of the research station’s technicians being taken down by snowmobile after his one-month winter shift.
Technicians at the facility work one month on, one month off during the winter.
Edik Arshakian and Gurgen Jabaryan have dinner.
Inside the station, it is surprisingly cosy. Edik Arshakian and Gurgen Jabaryan, both technicians, are tasked with monitoring the scientific equipment, while Gohar Hovhannisian prepares the meals. She describes being somewhat trapped during the winter.
I can’t go outside for a full month; I’d sink up to my waist out there
Hovhannisian presides over an enormous kitchen built during the Soviet period, when scores of technicians were required to monitor and maintain rudimentary equipment. In winter she cooks mostly for just two technicians and herself.
Soviet-era mosaics illustrating cosmic rays hitting the Earth’s atmosphere adorn these walls at the station.
The confusingly named “rays” are, in fact, high-energy protons and atomic nuclei that zip through space at nearly the speed of light.
When they meet the Earth’s atmosphere they strike atoms and scatter them like snooker balls. These particles have the power to cut through material, including humans, and are sometimes blamed for corrupting digital memory and crashing computers.
The particles are one of the main obstacles to interplanetary travel, and their effects on astronauts and pilots are the subject of continued study.
Jabaryan climbs into one of the steel boxes around the station that houses scintillators.
High-altitude bases such as the one on Aragats are exposed to far higher doses of the cosmic specks than occurs at sea level, since the Earth’s atmosphere serves as a protective blanket.
Jabaryan at the computer where recordings from sensors around the base are fed and sent to physicists in Yerevan.
The Aragats facility is part of a network of sites around the world studying cosmic rays and is linked to research stations as far away as Costa Rica and Indonesia.
As well as studying cosmic rays, the centre is equipped with sensors that can record lightning strikes from miles around. In 2018, researchers using the sensors on Aragats found a link between thunderclouds and drastic spikes in radiation, which may affect passengers and crew onboard aircraft.
A half-built observatory abandoned by the Soviets sits 200 metres away from the station.
Soviet-era electronics abound at the base. Amid the economic turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Aragats station was kept alive by state funds and donations from the Armenian diaspora community which continue today.
Dotted around the centre, “scintillators” record incoming cosmic rays as they strike chunks of clear plastic inside, causing tiny flashes of light.
Although Aragats is a thriving research site in summer, when visitors can arrive by car, through the long winter months it is a lonely place almost cut off from the rest of the world.
Jabaryan photographs Mount Ararat, 55 miles away in Turkey, at sunrise.
Jabaryan jokes that his favourite part of working at the site is “when the snowmobile comes to pick me up at the end of the month”. But the isolation of this mountain station is a worthy sacrifice for science since, as Hovhannisian says: “We’re above civilisation. The cosmic particles arrive clear and pure here since there’s nothing to disturb them.”