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An observatory is a location used for observing terrestrial and/or celestial events. Astronomy, climatology/meteorology, geology, oceanography and volcanology are examples of disciplines for which observatories have been constructed. Historically, observatories were as simple as containing an astronomical sextant (for measuring the distance between stars) or Stonehengemarker (which has some alignments on astronomical phenomena).

Astronomical observatories

Ground-based observatories

Ground-based observatories, located on the surface of Earth, are used to make observations in the radio and visible light portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Most optical telescopes are housed within a dome or similar structure, to protect the delicate instruments from the elements. Telescope domes have a slit or other opening in the roof that can be opened during observing, and closed when the telescope is not in use. In most cases, the entire upper portion of the telescope dome can be rotated to allow the instrument to observe different sections of the night sky. Radio telescopes usually do not have domes.

For optical telescopes, most ground-based observatories are located far from major centers of population, to avoid the effects of light pollution. The ideal locations for modern observatories are sites that have dark skies, a large percentage of clear nights per year, dry air, and are at high elevations. At high elevations, the Earth's atmosphere is thinner thereby minimizing the effects of atmospheric turbulence and resulting in better astronomical "seeing". Sites that meet the above criteria for modern observatories include the southwestern United States, Hawaiimarker, the Andes Mountains region, Australia and the mountainous Sierra Negramarker in Mexicomarker. Major optical observatories include Mauna Keamarker, HI, USA, Roque de los Muchachos Observatorymarker in Spainmarker, Paranal Observatorymarker in Chilemarker and Kitt Peakmarker observatory in the USA.

The largest observatory in the world is the Large Millimeter Telescopemarker located in the high mountains of the state of Pueblamarker in Mexicomarker.

Radio observatories

Beginning in 1930s, radio telescopes have been built for use in the field of radio astronomy to see space very close up. Such an instrument, or a collection of them, with outbuildings for such things as control centres, data reduction centers, and maintenance are called radio observatories. Radio observatories are similarly located far from major centers of population to avoid electromagnetic interference (EMI) from radio, TV, radar, and other EMI emitting devices. But unlike optical observatories, radio observatories will be placed in valleys to further shield them from EMI. Some of the major radio observatories are at Socorromarker, in New Mexicomarker, USAmarker, Jodrell Bankmarker in the UKmarker, Arecibomarker, Puerto Rico, Parkesmarker at New South Walesmarker, Australia and Chajnantor in Chilemarker.

Oldest astronomical observatories

The oldest proto-observatories, in the sense of a private observation post, include:

The oldest true observatories, in the sense of a specialized research institute, include:

Space-based observatories

Space-based observatories are telescopes or other instruments that are located in outer space, many in orbit around the Earth. Space-based observatories can be used to observe astronomical objects at wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that cannot penetrate the Earth's atmosphere and are thus impossible to observe using ground-based telescopes. The Earth's atmosphere is opaque to ultraviolet radiation, X-rays, and gamma rays and is partially opaque to infrared radiation so observations in these portions of the electromagnetic spectrum are best carried out from a location above the atmosphere of our planet. Another advantage of space-based telescopes is that, because of their location above the Earth's atmosphere, their images are free from the effects of atmospheric turbulence that plague ground-based observations. As a result, the angular resolution of space telescopes such as the Hubble Space Telescope is often much smaller than a ground-based telescope with a similar aperture. However, all these advantages do come with a price. Space telescopes are much more expensive to build than ground-based telescopes. Due to their location, space telescopes are also extremely difficult to maintain. The Hubble Space Telescope can be serviced by the Space Shuttle while many other space telescopes cannot be serviced at all.

Volcano observatories

A Volcano observatory is an institution that conducts research and monitoring of a volcano. Mobile volcano observatories exist with the USGS VDAP (Volcano Disaster Assistance Program), to be deployed on demand.

See also


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  2. Peter Barrett (2004), Science and Theology Since Copernicus: The Search for Understanding, p. 18, Continuum International Publishing Group, ISBN 056708969X
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