Waiting for the Sunshine at the Wilhelm-Foerster Observatory

The sun is starting to frequent the cloudy Berlin skies as the summer approaches, so what better way to fully appreciate its warmth and beauty than by zooming in on it at the Wilhelm-Foerster Observatory?

I heard of the Sternwarte through a fresh-faced Berliner and from his pictures, the dome-shaped buildings looked like something out of Dragon Ball Z. My curiosity instantly was sparked, and just a short walk from the S-Bahn Priesterweg, this little adventure seemed feasible to squeeze between errands.

As I walked alone through the scenic park of winding trails, I approached the location of the Sternwarte. There were a handful of domes varying in sizes, and the larger one was located above a small reception area.

The entrance featured paintings of planets and on its walls hung a map of a star constellation. A silver plaque reminded the visitors that the Observatory was built in 1962 and named after the German astronomer Wilhelm Julius Foerster, who made the first co-discovery of asteroid 62 Erato on record with a colleague in 1860.

The Bamberg refractor

The Bamberg refractor was built in 1889 by the company Carl Bamberg in Friedenau for the Berlin Urania. With its opening of 314 mm and a focal length of 5000 mm, it was at that time the largest telescope in Prussia.

The Bamberg refractor

The complete telescope with its mount has a weight of 4.5 tons. After the Second World War, the instrument was initially placed in the Papestraße, before it was housed in 1963 in the 11 -meter dome of the observatory on the islander.

The place looked deserted, but a door was left open, leading to one of the telescopes. I snuck in, of course. As I stood in awe of such a gigantic instrument, a woman with long grey hair was giving a tour to a young girl. Olivia, as I learned she was named, wasn’t just any tour guide; she belonged to an astronomy club and had access to the locked rooms.

She informed me that members came in on certain nights to give tours to small groups. The usual price of entrance is only €3 for the Sternwarte and the opening hours for the month of May are Tuesday through Friday starting at 21:00. Saturday is the most flexible day with five visiting periods starting at 15:45. More information can be found here.

I happened to walk in on the end of one such student tour, and Olivia kindly allowed me to tag along. She pushed a button to rotate and slide open the dome of the smaller room, which was decorated with an old monitor and other dusty items.

The telescope was directed at the sun, which at times peaked through heavy clouds. Unfortunately, the on-and-off weather got in the way of Olivia showing us sunspots. Eventually though, with some patience, sitting on foldable stairs and looking through the eyepiece, I saw it: a tiny black dot swimming in the almost-blinding colors of orange and red. “Wow” was all I could say as Olivia explained something in German about the sun’s layers.

My grandfather had passed away unexpectedly the night before I glimpsed the centre of our solar system. It’s funny how sometimes you just go for a walk to take a couple of selfies near cool buildings, clear your mind and upstage your friend (“Haha! I found the place you visited!”). But that day, a little surprise and the kindness of a stranger just made me want to keep exploring and appreciating life a little more, perhaps, as they say, with the fire of a thousand suns.

By Maria Castillo
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