A week to look at the sky (EL PERIÓDICO)

The milky way from the Sant Roc viewpoint, Muntayes de Prades (Spain).

Jupiter, the giant of the solar system, is shining brightest this summer. «Now it is in opposition, that means that it is at the minimum distance from the Earth, -about 660 million kilometers-, and that is why we see it at its maximum size,» explains with passion Aleix Roig, head of the Parc Astronòmic Muntanyes de Prades (PAP). Not surprisingly, in this Tarragona town, -at about a thousand meters above sea level-, looking at the sky with a telescope has a prize. «We have been able to see the bands of Jupiter and its four main moons, also a Perseid», tells Marina Climent, astronomical guide, to a group of stargazers from the Sant Antoni viewpoint.

The levels of darkness in the sky and the stability of the image obtained, place this area among the best places to observe the stars in the entire peninsula. The Sierra de la Musara and the Sierra de la Llena, -to the north and the south-, block direct light pollution from two large nearby cities such as Lleida and Tarragona. This uniqueness motivated the launch of the Astroprades project four years ago, which provides for the construction of an astronomical observatory in Pla de la Guàrdia that could be operational by the middle of this decade. At the moment the astronomical park has a 360-degree planetarium, an astronomical museum and a recently opened visitor center.

Equal parts research and disclosure

The future observatory, -which has the support of 20 municipalities in the area-, aims to combine top-level scientific research with dissemination, a pioneering initiative in Europe. At the moment there is already a working agreement with the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands and the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia. The intention is to work hand in hand with the Àger astronomical observatory, on Montsec. There they are investigating exoplanets and the trajectories of space debris so they can safely launch new space missions into orbit. «The dark skies allow us to observe the details of nebulae and galaxies, such as our Milky Way. What can we not do here in Prades with several large diameter research telescopes?» Roig dreams with enthusiasm.

Astrotourism shines

So far, star tourism is showing great interest in the area. Since 2016 the Prades astronomical park offers various activities to bring the stars closer to visitors. Dinners under the stars, solar vermouths, and astronomical experiences that include observations with automated telescopes. «In the town we change all the lighting to become a space free of light pollution. There is more and more interest in the night sky and that is going well for us to de-seasonalize tourism,» says Lídia Bargas, mayor of the Tarragona town.

The figures support them. Since the beginning of the project, they have already received 8,000 visits and the economic return for hotels, shops and restaurants has been about 200,000 euros per year, according to the Astroprades Platform. «Astrotourism makes rural areas re-structure their economy around a tourism product with high added value, promoting the protection of the natural environment and offering job opportunities for young people,» says Aleix Roig of the Parc Astronòmic Muntanyes de Prades.

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