Observatory on the Gurten at night with two visitors

The infinite universe

My first observatory visit

Successful launch of stargazing evenings

The Monte Generoso Observatory was officially opened in 1996. It was first located on top of Monte Generoso and then 25 years later it was moved to the Gurten near Bern. After almost six months of construction and installation work, the observatory on the Gurten was officially inaugurated on March 20.

When I think about it, I realize that the last time I focused intensively on the subject of astronomy was probably during my high school years. Even though we have been organizing astronomy events at the Park im Grünen on the Gurten for seven years, it somehow never occurred to me to attend an evening myself. But after being heavily involved in the “Observatory on the Gurten” project for several months, I no longer had an excuse. I decided that I want to attend a stargazing evening and completely immerse myself in the world of astronomy. So, I mark the date of the first stargazing evening, March 22, in bold in my calendar.

As I take the cable car up the Gurten at 8:45 p.m. on Tuesday evening, I imagine the type of people who would want to take part in this kind of stargazing event. The number of participants is limited to 16. I envisage a group of nerdy astronomy students, former physics teachers, and “The Big Bang Theory” buffs. But I couldn’t be more wrong. When I arrive at the observatory shortly before 9 p.m., I'm greeted by a motley bunch of people. The group comprises a mix of nice people of different ages, including a young couple, a family with a teenage junior physicist, and a retired couple. This blew all my preconceptions clean out of the water.
Observatory on the Gurten in daylight
Guided by an astrophysicist with encyclopedic knowledge
We are welcomed shortly after 9:00 p.m. by Jos Kohn, who has a Ph.D. in astrophysics and is a founder of Astro Events. He has already pointed the telescope toward Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Jos briefly introduces himself and to start us off he asks us all to observe Sirius through the telescope. I am blown away. I can see a bright, slightly flickering dot in different sizes through the different telescopes. A member of the audience then asks the first interesting question of the evening. “Do stars actually have a jagged star shape?” It is easy to see Jos’ enthusiasm when he talks about astronomy and the different types of natural phenomena. I learn right at the start that stars are hot balls of gas and that the spiky outlines we see are caused by different optical effects.
After our initial introduction session on the telescopes, Jos explains the program for the evening. Then another question comes from the audience. “Can we take a look at the Orion Nebula?” Jos smiles and explains that he had actually planned to observe this constellation today anyway. No one else makes any further stargazing requests and I realize that I am not the only astronomy rookie.
Jos walks up to a tablet, enters a code, and then in the blink of an eye the telescope turns and aligns with the Orion Nebula, which is about 1,000 light-years away. Before our stargazing continues, Jos describes the different types of telescopes. The observatory on the Gurten houses a primary telescope with a diameter of 61 cm. This was built in 1996 and is a Ritchey-Chrétien model which includes two hyperbolic-shaped mirrors. The famous Hubble Space Telescope and the Very Large Telescope are also Ritchey-Chrétien telescopes. Jos continues to explain that the telescope has a focal length of 5 meters and that you can look into space at a maximum magnification of 500. The observatory also houses a Takahashi telescope, which is well suited for photography; a viewfinder, which makes it much easier to find celestial objects than with the actual telescope; and a solar telescope.
We continue on to the next celestial object. The telescope focuses on the Pleiades – an open cluster of stars that can also be seen with the naked eye. After everyone has a chance to look through the telescope, Jos asks us to step outside. We are treated to a tour of the constellations as we gaze at the magnificently luminous night sky. We observe the Big Dipper, Ursa Major, the Little Dipper, Cassiopeia (that has the shape of the letter "W"), Leo, Virgo, and many, many more. I am fascinated by the way Jos points the flashlight toward the sky and is able to explain the different constellations from memory. I learn that you have to extend the rear tip of the Big Dipper constellation five times and then you get to Polaris. And I also learn that there are 88 observable constellations. When we have finished our constellation training, we head back inside the observatory.
The telescope is now pointing toward the Bear Keeper constellation. The Bear Keeper constellation is also known by its Greek name Boötes and includes a plethora of binary stars (a binary star is when the angular separation between two stars is great enough to permit them to be observed as a double star from Earth or they may even be observed as one star even when viewed through the best telescopes and are therefore highly likely to be gravitationally bound to each other).
The telescope in the observatory on the Gurten
Grasping the vastness of 11 million light-years
We now go one step further and start observing galaxies. The telescope first points toward the Cigar Galaxy, also known as M82, which lies about 11 million light-years away. I can't quite wrap my head around the huge sum of 11 million light-years. Jos explains that a light-year is 9.46 trillion kilometers away. Now I have to multiply the whole thing by 11 million. This is a number and a distance way beyond my imagination. As I try to picture the distance in my head, Jos points the telescope toward the neighboring galaxy – Bode’s Galaxy or M81, which has over 200 billion stars. It looks like a fas-cinating little milky spot that contains a colossal number of stars. While everyone observes the galaxies one after the other, Jos patiently answers the many interesting questions that are asked: How long do stars live? What are they made of? When does a star get a name? Jos is not fazed by any of the questions and answers them as if he were an all-knowing encyclopedia of astronomy.
Man looking through the telescope on the Gurten
The time flies by and it is already 10:30 p.m. After one and a half hours of fascinating astronomical observation paired with many interesting explanations, we take a look at the last object of the evening: an open star cluster in the Fuhrmann constellation. I learn that open star clusters are collections of about one hundred to a few thousand stars formed from the same giant molecular cloud.

The last quarter of an hour passes by very quickly and Jos thanks everyone for their active participation and fascinating questions. The inaugural event ends with a round of applause and the participants head home. I was able to learn a lot about astronomical events in one evening and I can now understand how easy it is to become totally captivated by this subject. This was certainly not going to be the last time I would attend a stargazing evening and I am looking forward to learning more about the infinite universe very soon.

Are you interested in looking through a telescope and learning more about the fascinating world of astronomy? Follow this link to find out more about the observatory and the weekly stargazing evenings.


Martin Geiger, Head Marketing & Sales


Martin Geiger

Head Marketing & Sales

Public viewing evenings & “Stärne-Zyschtig” menu

Public stargazing evenings take place every Tuesday under the professional guidance of Astro Events. Gurtners restaurant serves the perfect culinary accompaniment to the observatory tour: the Stärne(Z)nacht menu. The ticket price includes a delicious three-course meal, mineral water, a "star" drink, and admission to the observatory.

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