“You only get a chance like this once in a lifetime”

Günther Hasinger, founding director of the German Centre for Astrophysics, on his Herculean task in Lusatia in Saxony, dealing with sceptical citizens and the musical side of the GDNÄ.

Professor Hasinger, a year ago you were appointed founding director of the German Centre for Astrophysics (DZA) in Lusatia, Saxony. How can we imagine your day-to-day work?
We can’t talk about everyday life in the usual sense yet, we haven’t been around long enough for that. The political decision for our centre was only made in autumn 2022. That was our big bang, so to speak: there was nothing before that, now everything is being created step by step. 

What are the next stages?
We will be organising three major international conferences here as early as 2025. The official founding of the DZA is planned for early 2026 – we are currently still in the set-up phase. In the winter semester of 2026/2027, the new Master’s degree programme in Astrophysics will start with five professorships at the Technische Universität Dresden. We hope to be able to move into our new central buildings on the outskirts of Görlitz around 2030. In around ten years’ time, around a thousand people will be working at the DZA. 

That’s an ambitious schedule. Where are you currently?
We are pretty well on schedule. In the first year, we took on a good 20 people, mainly in the administrative area, and this year we plan to take on just as many more. We are currently setting up temporary accommodation for five years in the historic post office in Görlitz. Planning for the future centre is in full swing. Now it’s all about creating sustainable structures for a globally unique large-scale research centre. 

Who is supporting you in this Herculean task?
A large team of great colleagues from ten renowned research institutions throughout Germany, including the German Electron Synchrotron DESY in Zeuthen and the TU Dresden. We submitted the application to establish the DZA together and are now sharing the work. A lot of support also comes from business and politics, directly on site in Görlitz, and of course at federal and state level.

Eröffnung der Büros Postplatz 1 © Paul Glaser

© Paul Glaser

Handing over the keys with prominent visitors (from left): Saxony’s Science Minister Sebastian Gemkow, TU Dresden Rector Ursula Staudinger, Minister President Michael Kretschmer, Federal Research Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger, DZA Director Günther Hasinger and Görlitz Mayor Octavian Ursu met in February 2024 to inaugurate the DZA’s transitional offices in the centre of Görlitz.

The DZA is made possible by funding from the structural change fund for lignite mining regions. How high is the budget?
A total of 1.2 billion euros is available from the state until 2038. The money comes 90 per cent from the federal government and ten per cent from the state of Saxony and will flow in annual instalments. We also want to attract third-party funding from national and international sources. Our budget is generous, but that alone is not enough. 

What more do you need?
We also need to think about housing, schools and daycare centres for our employees, the quality of life on site, roads and railway lines. We are currently holding many discussions on such topics. A new ICE railway line from Berlin to Wroclaw via Dresden and Görlitz would be fantastic. The region is currently left behind in terms of transport, but fast train connections would open up completely new opportunities also for scientific contacts, such as those we are currently establishing in Poland and the Czech Republic, specifically with universities in Wroclaw and Prague.

Veranstaltung im Rahmen der SPIN2023 Kampagne in Crostwitz © Paul Glaser

© Paul Glaser

At a discussion event on the prospects for Saxony as a centre of science in January 2024 in Crostwitz


Keyword science: What is the focus of the DZA?
There are three main areas. Firstly, basic astrophysical research to help us understand the development of the universe. This involves receiving and analysing signals from the early days of the cosmos. This is possible with modern telescopes that are spread all over the world, in the Chilean highlands as well as in the Antarctic ice. New, huge radio observatories are currently being built in Australia and Africa. Europe is planning another gigantic research instrument in the form of the Einstein Telescope. In future, the measurement results from all of these facilities will converge in Saxony, where the world’s largest civilian data set will be created, much larger than today’s internet. This treasure is to be analysed in a cost-effective and energy-saving manner, and this is where our second focus comes into play: the DZA will develop new technologies and algorithms for resource-saving digitalisation that will benefit society as a whole. Focus number three is a technology centre in which we develop innovative solutions for observatories – I am thinking, for example, of new semiconductor sensors, silicon optics or control technologies. Modern companies with around two thousand high-quality jobs are to be created through spin-offs and other effects. 

That sounds fascinating. But how does all this fit in with Görlitz, the easternmost city in Germany with only 57,000 inhabitants, right on the Polish border?
If you look at Europe as a whole, beautiful Görlitz lies at the centre. There is a great deal of scientific and technical expertise in the area: with the Zittau-Görlitz University of Applied Sciences, the renowned Dresden University of Technology and a long company tradition in precision mechanics and microelectronics. The particularly good granite in Lusatia is of great importance to us. Near Görlitz, in the district of Bautzen, we are planning a globally unique laboratory for the development of astrophysical and commercial technology. It will be located two hundred metres underground and will be about the size of an underground station. It owes its name Low Seismic Lab to the Lusatian granite rock. This dampens the seismic waves that constantly pass through the ground, meaning that a special geological calm prevails here, with almost no seismic disturbance factors. This is an invaluable advantage for sensitive measurements, such as gravitational waves. The laboratory is also suitable for the development of quantum computers and other high-tech applications. If we are lucky, we will soon be able to participate in the billion-dollar Einstein Telescope, the most sensitive gravitational wave observatory of all time. 

What do local people say about the DZA and its big plans?
We are now getting a lot of encouragement. But there was also headwind at the very beginning. A citizens’ initiative in Lusatia feared that the construction work would lower the groundwater level and create a repository for radioactive waste. We then organised a barbecue for everyone in the summer of 2022, i.e. before our project was awarded the contract, to get people talking. As it turned out, the opposition came from a small but loud minority; everyone else was rather curious and open-minded. When I later picked up the guitar and joined them on a musical journey through life from Oberammergau to Munich, Potsdam, Hawaii, Madrid and Görlitz, the ice was broken. We now organise the barbecue every year. I have promised to sing a song in Sorbian this summer. I still have a lot of practising to do.

Grill und Infoabend in Cunnewitz © Paul Glaser

© Paul Glaser

The guitar solo by the head of the DZA, here in Cunnewitz in August 2023, is a fixed item on the programme of the barbecue and information evenings for the public.


An astrophysicist who gets up on stage with a guitar and sings–- you don’t see that every day. How come?
In my youth, I was a member of the Munich rock band “Saffran”, which released a record and even made it onto the cover of Bravo magazine. Later, I wanted to become a sound engineer, but then decided to study physics. I owe the fact that I caught fire for astrophysics to two gifted academic teachers, Joachim Trümper and Rudolf Kippenhahn. Both were Max Planck directors, which is what I wanted to become. That worked out and everything else developed from there. 

You took on the founding mission for the DZA at an age when others had long since retired. What appealed to you?
The huge opportunity – you only get something like this once in a lifetime. I’ve managed large institutes with up to a thousand employees before, but taking a centre from zero to one hundred is new and really appeals to me. What we as a specialist community have been calling for in our memoranda for decades is finally coming true: a national centre for astrophysics. 

You recently turned 70 – is retirement even an option for you?
First of all, I want to get the DZA up and running and help organise my successor. That will certainly take a few more years. After that, I want to retire, but I don’t want to be idle. My non-fiction book “The Fate of the Universe”, published in 2005, urgently needs a sequel. I want to write it and develop my musical skills – I might like to learn the double bass. 

You gave a lecture on black holes and the fate of the universe at the GDNÄ’s 200th anniversary celebrations in Leipzig. How do you remember the anniversary?
As a science festival in an elegant setting and with a rich programme. It was a showcase for research in front of an impressive audience. 

If we imagine the scientific system as an orchestra: What part does the GDNÄ play?
I imagine the GDNÄ perhaps as the viola. Its warm, dark sound forms a kind of bridge from the first and second violins to the low string instruments cello and double bass. Some of the greatest composers were violists, for example Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

Günther Hasinger © Paul Glaser

© Paul Glaser

Prof. Dr Günther Hasinger, founding director of the German Centre for Astrophysics.

About the person

Günther Hasinger was born on 28 April 1954 in Oberammergau. He studied physics at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where he also conducted research for his doctorate (1984) and his habilitation (1995). From 1994 to 2001, he was director at the Astrophysical Institute in Potsdam and professor at the university there. In 2001, he was appointed Director at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching; in 2008, he became Scientific Director of the MPI for Plasma Physics.  In 2011, he became Director of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and moved to Madrid in 2018 to work there as Science Director of the European Space Agency (ESA) until the beginning of 2023. He then returned to Germany. Since April 2023, he has been the designated founding director of the German Centre for Astrophysics, a professor of excellence at TU Dresden and a senior scientist at DESY.

Hasinger’s research focuses on the evolution of distant active galaxies and the role of black holes in their formation. He is recognised as one of the leading scientists in the field of X-ray astronomy.

Günther Hasinger has received several prizes, including the DFG Leibniz Prize in 2005. He is a member of the Leopoldina and other scientific academies. His non-fiction book “The Fate of the Universe” was voted Science Book of the Year in 2008.

DZA Außenraumperspektive © Paul Glaser

© Paul Glaser

Architectural vision: This is what the Görlitz campus should look like in a few years’ time.

Further information