The star hunter and his trail

At the Martinsberg Astronomical Centre, you can observe the universe from the Waldviertel region. On guided tours and hikes, chairman Michael Jäger shows the way to the stars.

The next stop is the Milky Way. Along the Ysper-Weiten valley circular hiking trail, the Kremstal trail, Trail of Life or the Sternwarte hiking trail, you reach the Astronomical Centre around the Orion Observatory near Martinsberg. Observations of the sky are particularly impressive here, says Michael Jäger from the Astronomical Society.

Mr Jäger, what makes Martinsberg the ideal place for stargazing?

Michael Jäger: The view of the stars is increasingly hindered by man. With the expansion of residential and industrial areas, light pollution in Central Europe has also increased significantly in recent decades. But we hear again and again from our guests that it is really dark here. There are two reasons for this. The region around Martinsberg is relatively sparsely populated, and the climatic conditions are favourable for observation. Due to the altitude - the Martinsberg Astronomical Centre is located at 860 metres - the sky here is usually more transparent than in the lowlands. The altitude is also noticeable in the temperatures. There is usually a difference of 6 degrees between the Wachau and the Upper Waldviertel region.

Is it important that such places with low light pollution still exist?

Michael Jäger: This is something special and we have to pay attention to it. The switch to LED lights has particularly aggravated the situation in recent times. They consume less electricity, but make the night sky even brighter. And many illuminations at night are unnecessary. There are only a few oases left where you can see the starry sky almost without impediment. In Lower Austria, there are two areas where it is still really dark. In addition to the foothills of the Alps, in the south-western Waldviertel region, and especially in the region around the Weinsberg Forest near Martinsberg.

Can you also see celestial bodies here with the naked eye?

Michael Jäger: The dark sky enables us to see up to 5,000 stars on very clear nights. But not only that! Especially in summer, we have an excellent view of the Milky Way, our home galaxy, which is home to 300 billion suns. Since it is also a disc, it stretches across the sky as a long diffuse band. We also have a good view of our neighbouring galaxy with the naked eye. The Andromeda Nebula is two million light years away. This means that here we can see a light that is so many years old without optical aids - this is not possible in the city.

And visitors can see even more with the telescope.

Michael Jäger: They are particularly impressed when we show the moon and the bright planets Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and Venus with the telescope. And at the end, there is often a view of open star clusters, globular clusters and gas nebulae in the Milky Way and distant galaxies. We are currently modernising our historic observatory, so we will soon have a contemporary telescope and even more possibilities.

What observations have fascinated you?

Michael Jäger: I am a really passionate comet observer. For 40 years, I have been following every visible comet - and if it is particularly bright, we show it to our visitors. My greatest success as a comet observer was the discovery of the periodic comet, 290P/Jager. I have also discovered seven mini-comets.

How did you get into astronomy and then here to the observatory?

Michael Jäger: I was actually born in Vienna. In my younger years I lived near the planetarium, and I used to go to the Urania observatory as a teenager, and soon got my first telescope. That’s how I got started. I first came to the Waldviertel region as a pensioner, looking for a place for my private observatory, which I built here. At the same time, I now do the guided tours at the public Orion Observatory, which has operated here since the 1960s.

Both observatories are part of the new Martinsberg Astronomical Centre. What else is part of it?

Michael Jäger: After the Orion Observatory was renovated in the early 2000s, an observatory station was also built on the site in 2009 at the instigation of the Vienna-based Astronomical Society. It is one of 20 stations in an international network of meteor cameras that document bright shooting stars in order to calculate a possible impact location on Earth. In 2021, the municipality of Martinsberg built an exhibition hall for this purpose and handed it over to us amateur astronomers. My private observatory and another one were then built. Together, these now make up the Martinsberg Astronomical Centre. Our aim is to bring people closer to the stars - in the form of talks followed by observation through the telescopes.

But you don't just look through the telescope. You also go outside?

Michael Jäger: Yes, as a special feature we also want to present ourselves as walking astronomers. This year, we are doing three full moon hikes and, for the first time, two night hikes to enjoy both the landscape and the stars, the sky and the earth. Speaking of hikes, in addition to the observatory's own hiking trail, the Waldviertel Lebensweg also passes by.

What advice do you have for those who want to try their hand as an astronomer?

Michael Jäger: You need good preparation for a successful observation. So, you should make an observation plan for the night. What do you want to see and which telescope or camera will you use? If you don't know what you're looking for, you can ask clubs for tips. You should then choose an observation site. Ideally, you should find one away from residential areas and check it out during the day.  In the end, you will be surprised how many stars you will be able to recognise after a few seconds of exposure time with a still camera or mobile phone - just try it!