Sphinx Observatory

Sphinx Observatory

Jungfraujoch, Switzerland

Reaching the summit of Jungfraujoch, the “Top of Europe,” is quite an adventure. It begins with a rapid cable car ascent past the Eiger mountain, followed by a train ride through a long dark tunnel. Eventually you emerge to spectacular views of glaciers and the Bernese Alps. Our crew was allowed to stay overnight at the Sphinx Observatory through special arrangements, which allowed us to film both sunset and sunrise scenes. At nearly 12,000 feet, none of us slept well, and clouds and fog resulted in no usable footage from the morning shoot. Fortunately, the previous evening had a glorious sunset, and though Alan was frozen to the bone, we captured that moment for “Atoms Everlasting,” the concluding sequence in part 3. (For more on Alan’s and Geoff’s reactions, see here and here.)

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Sphinx Observatory

The Sphinx Observatory is an astronomical and meteorological observatory located above the Jungfraujoch in Switzerland and owned and run by Sphinx AG Jungfraujoch. It is also used to study glaciology, radiation, cosmic rays, astronomy, and physiology and is named after the Sphinx, a rocky summit on which it is located. At 3,571 meters (11,716 feet) above mean sea level, it is one of the highest observatories in the world. The Jungfraujoch is the saddle between the two peaks, Jungfrau and Mönch, in the Bernese Alps. It is at the upper end of the Aletsch Glacier. The Jungfraujoch is not only an impressive viewpoint but also an ideal location for a variety of research projects. Clean air and easy railway access are prerequisites for various scientific studies. Accessible to the public, it is also the second-highest accessible observation deck in Switzerland.

The mountain top has been tunneled to fit an elevator ascending to the observatory from the Jungfraujoch railway station, the highest train station in Europe. The building is located on the Valais side of the border, only a few meters from the canton of Bern, although it is accessed via the Jungfrau Railway from the Bernese Oberland. Since 1912, the Jungfraujoch has been accessible by the Jungfrau railways from Kleine Scheidegg, running partly underground in a tunnel through the Eiger and the Mönch. In 1894 the Swiss Federal Council made support of the research station a condition for the concession to the company to build a railway in the pristine alpine world.

The scientific part of the Sphinx observatory includes five laboratories, a mechanical workshop with a small equipment room, library, a dining and recreation room, kitchen, ten bedrooms, two bathrooms with showers, the custodians’ apartments, two terraces for scientific experiments, and an astronomical as well as a meteorological cupola. (Staying overnight is not always a comfortable experience: see Alan’s “Memories” in Behind The Scenes.) The astronomical cupola has a 76cm telescope with Cassegrain and Coudé focus. The observatory plays an important role in a range of long-term experiments, including measuring levels of CO2, in the atmosphere; it serves as a solar spectrometer for the Institute of Astrophysics and Geophysics at the University of Liège, Belgium, and it plays a vital role in a LIDAR experiment conducted by the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. In 1949, nuclear emulsion plates exposed to cosmic rays in the observatory provided the first precise evidence of the charged K-meson, a subatomic particle. The Research Station at Jungfraujoch, inaugurated in 1931, is the property of the Foundation HFSJG.

The Observatory can be seen in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Krrish 3, a 2013 Indian Hindi-language superhero film. It was visited in Season 22 of the American reality competition series The Amazing Race on the team’s visit to Switzerland in Leg 8. It also appears in the 2016 video game Steep. The open viewing deck accessible to the public is adjacent to the observatory and offers spectacular views of the Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger peaks, all within a few kilometers. The laboratories are not open to the public, but all can visit their fantastic viewing terraces. The nearby Aletsch Glacier is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Sphinx Observatory in Switzerland is an astronomical and meteorological observatory, and is also used to study glaciology, radiation, cosmic rays, astronomy and physiology.
Host Alan Lightman braves the cold to take in the scenic beauty.
At 3,571 meters (11,716 feet) above mean sea level, The Sphinx Observatory is one of the highest observatories in the world.