Czech astronomers create country’s third dark skies reserve in western Bohemia

Photo: CTK

As of this week the Czech Republic has a third dark skies reserve in the Manětín region, in western Bohemia. Its opening on Monday attracted amateur astronomers from around the country as well as the mayors of the ten villages located in the area. I spoke to one of the country’s leading astrophysicists Jiří Grygar about why this particular region was chosen and what has put the Czech Republic at the head of this trend on the European and world scale.

Photo: CTK
“I think this locality was chosen because we already knew from previous experience that although there are not many places in Europe left that are free of light pollution the situation around Manětín is still quite good. We had summer holiday observations in the area and discovered that the place was still relatively good for night sky watching. This has now been “formalized” so to speak and it is good not just for astronomical observations but for plant and animal life in the region.”

What are the other benefits of establishing a dark skies oasis?

“Well, of course there are economic benefits because when you are directing all your lights down you need less electricity and are not squandering money on “stray lighting” that just lights up the sky and is good for nothing. Another thing is that these dark sky areas in Europe and on other continents are now becoming a popular tourist attraction – so I think that the Manětín area can hope to attract more tourists in future as a result of this decision.”

There are 40 such reserves in the world and just eight in Europe of which three are in the Czech Republic –how come we are at the head of this trend –are there so many amateur astronomers in the country?

“It seems to me that the Czech Astronomical Society, which was established back in 1917, is very active in supporting this trend – we have a special commission within the Czech Astronomical Society and we even helped push through legislation on light pollution – protecting against it where it is necessary, not all over the country, of course. I think this was a big step forward and now with the three dark skies reserves in Bohemia and Moravia I think the mayors of small cities and villages are open to our way of thinking –so it is easier to push these things through and show other regions the benefits.”

Jiří Grygar,  photo: Katarína Brezovská
We are talking about an area that is over 300 square kilometers and there are ten villages in this locality – what does this mean for them?

“I think they will benefit from having it as a tourist attraction and they will also save on electricity bills for public lighting.”

Does it mean they have to make big investments or may not hold certain events -?

“No, there is no extra cost for them right now. Only if they need to replace street lights –they will be limited in choice. They already know what is possible and what they can order.”

You said this could attract more visitors to the locality within the new wave of astro-tourism. What exactly is astro-tourism and why is it becoming more popular?

“I think that it attracts people who are bored with the trappings of civilization like television and the internet. They wish to experience something for themselves – to see the night sky with their own eyes. It is an experience that we professionals have because we travel to places where the skies are really dark. At the beginning of the last century it was an experience open to practically all mankind but now things are very different. The vast majority of Europe is now over-illuminated as you can see from satellite photos and there are only a few places – like in central Spain – where you have dark skies. But I think the situation will improve because people are now aware of the problem. ”

You popularized the idea of dark skies areas. You hold debates with the public –do you take students and children to experience Dark Skies reserves in order to spread the message.

“This activity is mainly connected to our public observatories. The Czech Republic has one of the highest densities of these public observatories which are very well- equipped and have competent staff. These people often take telescopes out into the country and hold night-sky parties. These parties are popular in the US and I think we are heading in the same direction.”

Photo: archive of ESO,  CC BY 3.0
You have already said that the Czech Republic has a great number of amateur astronomers and that there are very many observatories in the country – how did this come about?

“I think there is a long tradition. In the medieval ages we already had a university where astronomy was taught, then at the beginning of the 17th century we had great astronomers in Prague, namely Johannes Kepler and Tyco Brahe so people of this caliber set an example, served as inspiration for the future and at the end of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in 1917 a Czech astronomical society was established strengthening this tradition and when the International Astronomical Society was created in 1919 the former Czechoslovakia joined it in 1922. So I think there is a very good tradition here of professional astronomy, amateur astronomers and popularization of science.”

Do you cooperate with similar institutions elsewhere in Europe to actively support the creation of dark skies reserves elsewhere in Europe?

“Yes, there are Dark Skies associations practically in most developed countries and our members of this special committee the Czech Astronomical Society have annual consultations with other European specialists in the field – and from around the world as well – so I think we are exchanging ideas.”

If someone out there would like to enjoy this experience in a dark skies reserve –how does one go about that - just set out, take a tent and find a place to watch the night skies?

“There are people who set out by themselves or with their family, but we also have these more formal sky parties and these are organized by people from the local observatories. ”

Can you tell us what a sky party is for those who have never experienced one?

Illustrative photo: Kristýna Maková
“Well, the first thing is to select a suitable site so you need to do that and find a good place where you can install your telescopes. You have to ask permission to be there, of course, and then people congregate –normally they come by car and if they have their own telescopes then they bring those. But they do not necessarily need to do that. And then when darkness falls they look though the different types of telescopes that are there which is a great experience because different telescopes offer different views of the sky and the professionals need to explain to the laymen what they should look for and how to interpret the sights.”