See the Milky Way with the naked eye

St. Andreasberg in the Harz Mountains is one of the best places in Germany for stargazers. Here – at over 700 metres above sea level – there are still pitch-dark nights. “Light and air pollution” are extremely low. “In many nights you can see the Milky Way or the Andromeda Galaxy very well or even photograph gas nebulae or a supernova with telescopes” says Utz Schmidtko, chairman of the St. Andreasberg Observatory, that opened in 2014. His photograph – exposure time: two minutes – shows our home galaxy, the Milky Way, which is home to between 100 and 300 billion stars. It’s one of billions of other galaxies. We asked Schmidtko about the current development of the observatory.

Harz-Beat: Mr. Schmidtko, the observatory St. Andreasberg is developing more and more into a tourist attraction. Are there any reliable figures on astro-tourism in the Harz Mountains?

Schmidtko: Astro-tourism is on the rise. However, we do not yet have an exact number. In Germany, we assume that there are several 100,000 people involved in astronomy, the majority of whom are wealthy people. Some even afford telescopic technology, which corresponds to the value of a small car.

“Astro-friendly guesthouses and hotels.”

Harz-Beat: Do the many guesthouses and hotels in the Harz also benefit from astro-tourism?

Schmidtko: More and more tourists come to the Harz Mountains just because of the observatory. We have even compiled a list of astro-friendly guesthouses and hotels with which we cooperate. What is particularly pleasing is that the increasing interest in astronomy also has something to do with a changed consciousness. People are more concerned with nature again. I think it is a big shortcoming when children and young people grow up without the starry sky and – like many adults – believe that they are the navel of the world. Looking into the immensity of the sky, the earthly existence relativizes itself and one is grounded again a bit.

“Highest Observatory in Northern Germany”

Harz-Beat: You have just returned from Namibia, where according to your words “the Milky Way appears so bright that it casts shadows”. What makes St. Andreasberg so attractive as a location for an observatory?

Schmidtko: St. Andreasberg has the highest observatory in northern Germany at an altitude of 700 metres. This means that we have very low light and air pollution, especially as there is no big city and no industry nearby. We are now one of the most famous observatories in Germany. We are joined by astronomers and amateur astronomers alike. They will find excellent conditions here. Many have already become members. We have five telescopic columns prepared for different mountings (12V and 220V) on the outside area next to the International House Sonnenberg. Everything is completely barrier-free for disabled people. This makes us the first in Germany, by the way.

In hardly any other region in Germany can the stars be observed as well as in the Upper Harz Mountains: Interested visitors look through the telescope. Picture top left: The Elephant Trunk Galaxy, photo: Garrett Hubing; top right: The Horsehead Galaxy, photo: Garrett Hubing.

Harz-Beat: How did you come across St. Andreasberg as the location for an observatory?

Schmidtko: As so often in life, by chance. A tourist from Duisburg brought his telescope a few years ago and said to his landlord: “You have to build an observatory here. The conditions are perfect.” Today we already have 500 addresses of guests who come again and again.

“…and suddenly the sky rips open”

Harz-Beat: How many days a year are there ideal conditions in St. Andreasberg?

Schmidtko: That is a difficult question. Often the sky is not quite clear at the beginning and suddenly – let’s say around 2 o’clock in the night – it rips open completely. This was the case recently during the visit of a Dutchman who had never seen Saturn before. Of course, we always take a look at the weather map and the satellite picture first. You can imagine that on special occasions like the Shooting Star Nights we look up at the sky all night long.

Harz-Beat: What is more important for stargazers, looking or photographing?

Schmidtko: Two thirds come to look, third to photograph.

Harz-Beat: So, you are completely satisfied with the development of the observatory.

Schmidtko: … Without the work of our 120 honorary members the observatory would not have become such a successful lighthouse project for the whole of Lower Saxony and beyond.

“The most frequently asked question by guests”

Harz-Beat: What is the most frequent question of your guests?

Schmidtko: Above all, children and young people want to know whether there is any other life in the universe. Our answer: Yes, it is unlikely that billions of galaxies, which in turn harbor many billions of stars, are not inhabited. Otherwise the questions are very different. Often the topics focus on special astro-photographs that someone has taken.

Harz-Beat: Which is the furthest galaxy you can see from St. Andreasberg? How many light years away?

Schmidtko: I must pass. For example, if someone takes an image with an exposure time of 20 hours – i.e. over several nights – he captures photons from distant galaxies that only the camera chip can make visible. What I can say for sure: With the naked eye you can see the Andromeda galaxy, our neighbouring galaxy.

St. Andreasberg: Observatory has big plans

The extremely positive development of the observatory St. Andreasberg inspires the association members to think in larger dimensions: In a few years a large dome could be available in the observatory. This was reported by the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung (HAZ) on 24 December 2018.

In the newspaper the journalist Gabriele Schulte informed not only about what the astronomers have to say regarding the star of Bethlehem, but also about plans to build a star trail in the St. Andreasberg region with seven locations including the corresponding barrier-free installations. As a vision of the future, there could be 20 locations later on, spread across the entire Harz Mountains.

In addition, the HAZ report mentioned that the observatory took first place in the category “Pure Nature” of the last two voting competitions “Your Best in the Harz Mountains”, that the Tourism Association held in 2015 and 2017.

Text and design: Jochen Hotop, Michael Hotop

  • Highest Observatory in Northern Germany
  • One of the best night skies in Germany (according to the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation)
  • The first completely barrier-free observatory in Germany
  • At events: Projection of the universe directly from the telescope into the lecture room