Why Montsec is Europe’s star-gazing capital

It was on a starry night, when the hills were bright, that astronomists realised they needed to move away from those darn light-polluted hills.

And with a steady interest in star-gazing, the Spanish mecca of Montsec has seen a steady rise in tourists visiting for its glimpse of our galaxy.

Set in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountain, the Montsec Astronomy Park has become recognised as a world-class spot for star-gazing since it opened its doors to the public in 2009. The conditions mean that it’s attracted amateurs keen to see more than they ever could at home – for example the Milky Way is clearly visible with the naked eye in July.

But it has plenty of extremely expensive equipment to aid the star-spotting process. The Eye of Montsec is one of only a few planetariums (planetaria?) in the world which retract entirely to expose the night sky to budding astronomers, and allows guests to view real time images of incredible stars captured by the surrounding telescopes.

To find out more about the hobby, the science, and the astronomical park, we spoke to its resident Scientific Manager, Salvador Ribas. He gives TLE the lowdown on what astronomy means in 2015, why Montsec is such a hotspot, and what else to do while in Catalonia.

Has there been an increase in star-spotting as a hobby?

I think astronomy is always a hot topic for public, mainly for two reasons. The first is because astronomy deals with observing the unknown, and objects that are really far away to us – which leads us to the basic questions of our existence. The second one is more practical: astronomy produces very nice images and this motivates people to observe the sky, either through naked eye observations or through places like observatories and astro-clubs.

What are the perfect conditions for seeing stars?

For the best stargazing we need clear skies without clouds or rain and low humidity levels. We also need an area without light pollution, and this is now extremely difficult. You have to look for very specific places.

If you want to do professional astronomy these items have to be under control, plus some others related to stability of atmosphere that lead to stability of the astronomical images and to have all the set of conditions is extremely rare in Europe.

Salvador Ribas

Salvador Ribas

What can you see in Montsec Astronomy Park that you can’t see in London?

Montsec is a protected area against light pollution so we have very dark skies – probably the darkest of Europe, and this is really important. In addition of this you need good weather conditions and this is more frequent in Montsec mountains than in London.

Any city in the world is a good place for stargazing, but if you look at rural sites, you will get nice surprise when you look at the night sky.

How many people visit Montsec Astronomy Park each year?

The Astronomy Park opened in 2009 to public. Since then we have received more than 150,000 visitors – around 22-25,000 visitors per year. This is a really big number because Montsec area is a rural area far from Barcelona city. For example the village of Ager in the region has just 500 inhabitantsm and in some weeks we have more than 1000 visitors per week.

What does it mean to be named a Starlight Reserve?

The Starlight Initiative is a project managed by Starlight Foundation with support of Man at Biosphere Programme of UNESCO, the World Tourism Organisation and many other institutions. This project engaged a certification procedure for Reserve and Tourist Destinations that protect the night sky and do activities around that.

Montsec started the procedure in 2012 and beginning 2013 we got the double certification of Tourism Destination for 24 municipalities and Reserve for 11 municipalities in the area of Montsec mountain range. This covers an area of more than 40x40km.

What else is there to do in the area surrounding Montsec Astronomy Park?

Not only astronomy is in Montsec, this mountain range is well known for nature and sports activities. Montsec is one of the best places in the world for free-flight activities (ala delta, paragliding, etc). And we have a nice place for hiking or cycling activities and many other outdoors things to do. We have to remember that is an interesting area for historical point of view with many archaeological sites and castles of different periods of our history.

Do you believe in life on other planets?

You need to take into account that in the universe there are more than 100 billion of galaxies and every galaxy have 100 billion of stars more or less, and in every star is common to find planets. I think this leads us to think that is really probable that there’s life on other planets, but maybe many far away from us. This does not mean intelligent life, because the humans appears only in a very small period of the history of our planet.

What do the next ten years look like for astronomy?

On one hand we will have a lot of news related to the discovery of many exoplanets (planets in other stars) and every one will be more similar to the Earth. It’s really difficult to detect earth-like planets with current technology but in the next years we will have good results for sure.

I want to look into the study of our galaxy. The GAIA mission of European Space Agency will release the best catalogue of stars ever done in the next few years. This will allow researchers to do the best analysis of our galaxy. It’s not easy to study a galaxy when you are inside it.

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