Photo courtesy of Agrupació Astronòmica de Sabadell
The fat, short telescope swivels with electronic precision, its GPS system automatically searching for a specific patch of the night sky. The small group of astronomers, some amateur, some professional, stand nearby, talking in hushed tones of recent astronomical sightings. After the telescope finds its quarry, the assembled group take turns examining the hazy, white form through the eyepiece. The veterans are well familiar with the sight. It is the Andromeda galaxy, two and a half million light years away, the closest and best known of the spiral galaxies.
While Andromeda can also be seen with the naked eye, it is intriguing to view it through a powerful telescope. It’s as though your eye has taken an enormous, effortless leap through the vastness of interstellar space. And the thrill of the sighting makes you want to see more.
Luckily, anyone with the slightest inclination to explore such mysteries of the night sky will find considerable support for their curiosity in and around Barcelona. Stargazing, in fact, has long enjoyed passionate interest in Catalunya. Indeed, according to some experts, the region’s pre-historic dolmens, some of which date back 3,000 years, were placed according to precise astronomical observations. In more modern times, Catalunya pioneered Spain’s first astronomical societies, the earliest of which were founded here more than a hundred years ago.
In Barcelona, one such club is Aster, founded in 1948 with the aim of bringing modern astronomy closer to the general public. The club, which has about a hundred members, stages monthly outings to observe celestial wonders.
“We head out to the hills of Pujalt in Alt Anoia and set up our telescopes there,” explained Vincenç Castellote, Aster’s librarian. “Other times we simply go up to the grounds of the castle of Montjuïc or, for daytime observations of the sun, we set up a telescope by the Nova Icaria beach.”
Aster offers classes on a range of subjects from ‘astronomy for beginners’ to ‘urban astro-photography’, and occasional talks are also given by members or guests in their field of expertise. The classes, in Catalan or Castilian, are open to everyone, although members get a discount on the course fee.
Nocturnal outings are generally staged for members, but non-members will certainly not be turned away.
“We’re not an exclusive club,” Castellote recently told Metropolitan. “Members usually bring their own telescopes to the outings and if anyone else happens to show up, they’re welcome to join us.”
Aster’s dedicated members have made the news a number of times. In their prime, when they had their own small observatory in the dome of a building on Passeig de Gràcia, they were briefly famous for being the first amateurs to pick up radio signals from the Russian Sputnik satellite in 1957. In 1989, they also gained international recognition for discovering eruptions occurring on Jupiter’s Southern Equatorial Band.
A considerably larger and even more active astronomy club is the Agrupación Astronómica in the town of Sabadell. Founded by four amateur astronomers in 1960, the club has since grown to become Spain’s largest and most respected amateur astronomy association.
A good deal of the club’s success lies in the fact that one of Sabadell’s most esteemed mayors, Antoni Farres, ceded prime space to the club on the crowning hill of the city (in what is now the Parc de Catalunya) to build a modern observatory, which opened in 1993.
The Sabadell observatory boasts a 50-centimetre-diameter reflector telescope (which uses mirrors) and two smaller refractor telescopes (which use lenses). The powerful telescopes are at the disposal of the club’s more than 1,000 members, who simply have to reserve a time to use them. Non-members are also welcome to participate in the association’s numerous activities.
Albert Morrel, a professional astronomer and one of the club’s three full-time employees, told Metropolitan that many of the members form research groups according to their interests.
“On Wednesday nights, we have a group that studies ‘blasars’, which are black holes located in the centre of galaxies, and they share their results with an Italian astronomy group. On Thursdays, meanwhile, there is another group that studies asteroids.”
In terms of asteroids, in fact, the Agrupación Asociación de Sabadell has discovered two of these in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, which are now internationally (and perhaps universally) known as ‘Sabadell’ and ‘Oliver Cabasa’, the latter being one of the club’s oldest and most enthusiastic members.
The Sabadell club maintains an informative website which, among other things, offers a live webcam connection twice a month to its telescope so that web users can observe celestial goings-on practically in real time at home on their computers. The observatory itself also houses a small museum of old telescopes and a huge, hand-drawn map of the moon by English astronomer, Hugh Percy Wilkins. Its library, meanwhile, contains a sizeable collection of old astronomy books from the 18th to the 20th centuries, as well as more modern reference material. Like Aster, the club stages weekly scientific talks, from theoretical physics to ancient astronomy techniques and practically everything in between.
Back in Barcelona, astronomy buffs, or anyone who simply enjoys a good view, will be pleased to find the Observatori Fabra, located on Tibidabo. Built in 1904 by the architect José Domenech i Estapá (known as the ‘bad-boy’ of Modernisme for his anti-establishment tendencies), the Modernista observatory houses the original, seven-metre-long, 38-centimetre-diameter telescope, one of the last such instruments still in use and a veritable jewel of early 20th-century craftsmanship.
From June to September, the Observatori Fabra hosts dinners on its outdoor terrace, which are followed by a tour of the observatory and sightings of some of the night sky’s more brilliant objects. Scientific talks on a range of subjects also occasionally accompany these dinners.
Although the Fabra observatory is now devoted almost entirely to educational initiatives, it, like the Sabadell association, has opened up a scientific research observatory in Àgers in Montsec near Lleida. The sparsely populated area is also home to the Centre d’Observació de l’Univers (COU), a large astronomy complex dedicated to didactic activities, including the remarkable ‘Eye of Montsec’, which combines a digital, multimedia planetarium with direct observations of the night sky.
In Barcelona, another essential resource for anyone looking to peer into the abyss is Raig, a small but fully stocked shop of telescopes and other optical and meteorological instruments, located at the top of the Rambla.
In business since 1926, the shop is one of the few remaining family-owned enterprises left in the immediate vicinity of Plaça Catalunya. Raig’s manager, Asunción Faus, told Metropolitan that the shop sells at least one telescope every day and sometimes many more. An avid astronomer herself, Faus can help the beginner grasp the differences between the considerable range of telescopes on display.
“Essentially, it comes down to what you want to see,” Faus explained. “Some telescopes are better for observing planets, others for dimmer objects like galaxies, others for taking photographs.”
Prices range from a modest €100 on up to…well, the sky’s the limit. For a fully automated electronic telescope with a GPS tracking system, prices start at e1,500.
Echoing Faus’s advice, Sabadell’s Albert Morrel advised budding astronomers to first discover what their interests are, what objects in the infinite reaches of space most attract them, before investing in a specific type of telescope.
“Generally, it’s best to begin with brighter objects, like planets or the moon, and then move on from there,” Morrel advised. “The farthest object I’ve seen is a quasar, some 10 billion light years away.”
Agrupació Astronòmica de Barcelona (Aster) - Aragó 141, Tel. 93 415 9683, www.aster.org
Agrupación Astronómica de Sabadell, Tel. 93 725 5373, www.astrosabadell.org
Observatori Fabra, Tel.902 109 23, www.observatorifabra.com
Els Sopars amb Estrelles from June 18th until September 22nd. Reservations are necessary.
Raig - Pelai 62, Tel. 93 318 8547