2017 saw a major uptick in interest in “Wonder Woman” as the result of the movie where Gal Gadot played the role of the Amazonian princess. Others remember the character as portrayed by Lynda Carter in the late 1970s TV series. However, 2017 also saw the first American appearance by a real-life astronomical wonder woman – Pranvera Hyseni.
While both versions of the fictional Wonder Woman came from an exotic island, Pran (as she prefers to be called) came from an unusual location as well – a small part of what was once Yugoslavia and is now known as the Republic of Kosovo. Kosovo came into existence as the result of the wars that ensued as Yugoslavia disintegrated. In the final part of the conflict, Kosovo broke off from Serbia and became independent in 1998. However, Kosovo is only recognized by 115 countries, including the United States, which is held in very high regard over there. American flags can be seen in government offices and pictures of Bill Clinton (U.S. President at the time Kosovo became independent) are a frequent sight.
Pran was born on April 25th, 1995 in town of Vushtrri. The first step in her destined path took place in 1999. Kosovo was in the path of a total solar eclipse. The news was received in the country with panic and much superstition. However, Pran’s parents took no stock in that nonsense. Instead, at the appointed time, they got a large bucket and filled it with water. Then they and their children, including 4-year-old Pran, looked at the Sun’s reflection on the surface of the water. This is a surprisingly effective technique when done correctly as the water surface reflects a fraction of the Sun’s visible light and virtually none of the non-visible wavelengths, enabling safe viewing.
The next significant event, astronomically, came in 2011. Pran had been on Facebook for a time and one of her friends in Macedonia learned of her interest in the night sky. So he decided to give her a small telescope. While the 1999 solar eclipse set up the fuse, this telescope lit it. Pran was so impressed by how much she could see in the night sky using the telescope that she decided to devote herself to astronomy.
Then, a major problem arose. Pran soon discovered that there were no astronomy books, magazines, software, or websites in Albanian, the language of Kosovo (Kosovo has close ties to Albania). Rather than give up or sit around and wait for astronomy stuff to appear in Albanian, Pran tackled the problem by teaching herself English. This feat is not to be underestimated as not many people who come to the United States permanently from other countries are willing, able, or want to do it, instead preferring businesses and the government learn their language. Pran soon wound up with a very good command of the language for a self-taught non-native speaker.
This opened up a world of astronomical information, allowing Pran to learn about all aspects of space science as well as developing contacts in the astronomical community, both amateur and professional, throughout the world.
Pran soon decided that it would be in the best interests of Kosovo and its population to spread astronomical knowledge and interest. As a result, she created Astronomy Outreach Kosovo (AOK), the first astronomy club in the whole country. The primary activity of AOK is hosting outreach events at in towns, cities, and various schools. Due to this work, Pran was asked by the Ministry of Education to develop an astronomy curriculum to be used in schools throughout Kosovo, which she did. She also trained schoolteachers in the use of a number of telescopes donated by the German outfit GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, GmbH)
Pran’s fame soon spread throughout Kosovo and the astronomical community. Because of this, she became quite a traveler, representing Kosovo at conferences in locations as diverse as Milan, Italy, Zurich, Switzerland, and even the International SUNday event in Australia. While on those trips, Pran toured numerous astronomical sites and built up her contacts in the astronomical community – something that would pay off in the near future. But her greatest trip was yet to come – a visit to the United States. This came about when Robert Reeves of the Texas Star Party (TSP) invited her to speak at the event.
But it almost didn’t happen. Despite Kosovo’s good relations with the United States and the fact that Pran’s abilities were well-known to many in the space science community, she was initially denied a visa for her trip (mainly due to the influence of someone with bad hair and supposedly small hands). But, complaints from the astronomical community as well as many of her social network contacts prompted the State Department to see the light and give Pran her visa. The trip was on.
Despite a near-total lack of coverage by the mainstream American media, she wound up getting invitations from all over the country. Joe Bergeron of the Grand Canyon Star Party invited her to his event. While in Arizona, she got to see many attractions as well as some of the famous observatories there, including Lowell Observatory. Later she toured part of New England, visiting Rhode Island (no, she didn’t waste her time trying to find Quahog – she knew it wasn’t real) and Brown University, as well as MIT and the Harvard Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts. There were a number of speaking engagements, including one at Spacefest in June at Tucson, Arizona. At this event was that Pran got to meet almost all the surviving Apollo astronauts except for Buzz Aldrin, who was out of the country at the time.
Also on this trip she got to visit some of NASA’s spaceflight centers, Kennedy in Florida and Marshall in Alabama. While at those facilities, Pran was granted very high levels of access, including a visit to the roof of the Vehicular Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy.
During trip, Pran received numerous gifts from astronomical organizations, clubs, and admirers. These ranged from telescopes to meteorites, including a lunar and Martian one. This raised questions how they would be shipped back home to Kosovo as well as how to handle customs. But Pran solved that problem and now has the largest meteorite collection in Kosovo as well as having increased the number of telescopes in the country.
It was fitting that Pran, whose interest in astronomy began with a solar eclipse, got to witness the totality of the August 21st solar eclipse. After some discussion at the Kosovo Embassy in New York, she got an extension on her trip to allow this. In another stroke of good fortune, a fan who happened to own a plane came forward, allowing her to fly to Springfield, Tennessee, near the path of totality, which she witnessed using much better equipment than the bucket of water she used back in 1999.
In one of their few moves that even AAI member and noted IAU critic Laurel Kornfeld would agree with, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) named an asteroid in Pran’s honor. It is 45687 Pranverahyseni and, like 9967 Amastrinc (AAI’s asteroid), is a small (about 13 kilometers in diameter) body in the main asteroid belt. Pranverahyseni can be observed through very large amateur instruments from dark locations or via astroimaging.
These days, it seems every major success inspires a sequel, Pran’s American tour was no exception. This time, it is a six-month tour (let’s hope she never goes on a three-hour one – we all know how that ended up for one group of people). It started in April and the first major stop was NEAF (North East Astronomy Forum) at Rockland County College in Suffern, New York. She was a speaker at the event, but she had to share the stage with two other astronomers in a group that was billed as “Celestron’s Young Astronomers”. She deserved her own billing, something I discussed with Stephen Ramsden of the Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project (one of Pran’s best American friends) and we both agree on this. But as a consolation, Pran was the best prepared speaker of the three (she never used index cards, doing it all from memory) and the only one who got a standing ovation.
The most recent project AOK has embarked on is setting up, with the cooperation of the government, the first ever observatory in Kosovo. At NEAF, Corey Lee, the president of Celestron announced that his company would be donating a 14-inch telescope with associated hardware to this project. I heard this from Pran herself very shortly after she was informed of this.
The ongoing tour is expected to visit many astronomical locations all over the United States, including some of the more noteworthy events such as ALCON (the Astronomical League Convention, not the Weird Al Yankovic fan event of the same name). One major highlight already was that Pran finally got to observe her asteroid through a telescope at the Texas Star Party. Those who want to keep up with the tour can follow Pran and AOK on Facebook.
And Pran has an even bigger and longer trip to the United States planned in the future. Due to the lack of advanced astronomical education opportunities in Kosovo, Pran is hoping to get a PhD in planetary science at the University of Arizona. So we will probably be hearing more about Pran for some time to come.
Though Pranvera Hyseni is no Gal Gadot or Lynda Carter, as far as space science goes, she is definitely a wonder woman.
(Trivia note: Lynda Carter does know about Pran and is impressed.)