AskDefine | Define observatory

Dictionary Definition



1 a building designed and equipped to observe astronomical phenomena
2 a structure commanding a wide view of its surroundings [syn: lookout, observation tower, lookout station]

User Contributed Dictionary





Latin ob- + serva + -tory


  1. A place where stars, planets and other celestial bodies are observed, usually through a telescope.


place where bodies are observed

Extensive Definition

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 Stonehenge (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 lights portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Most optical telescopes are housed within a dome or other similar structure in order to protect the delicate instruments from the elements. Telescope domes contain a slat or other opening in the roof that can be opened during observing and then closed when the telescope is not in use. In most cases, the entire upper portion of the telescope dome can be rotated in order to allow the instrument to observe different sections of the night sky. Radio telescopes usually do not have domes.

Optical observatories

For optical telescopes, most ground-based observatories are located far from major centers of population in order 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, Hawaii, the Andes Mountains, and Australia. Major optical observatories include Mauna Kea, HI, USA, Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in Spain, Paranal Observatory in Chile and Kitt Peak observatory in the USA. The largest observatory in the equatorial belt is Observatorio Nacional de Llano del Hato in Venezuela.

Radio observatories

Beginning in the 1930's, radio telescopes have been built for use in the field of radio astronomy. 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 in order 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 Socorro, in New Mexico, USA, Jodrell Bank in the UK, Arecibo, Puerto Rico and Parkes in New South Wales, Australia.

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 can not be serviced at all.

Oldest astronomical observatories

Some of the oldest observatories include:

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.


observatory in Azerbaijani: Rəsədxana
observatory in Bulgarian: Обсерватория
observatory in Czech: Hvězdárna
observatory in Danish: Observatorium
observatory in German: Sternwarte
observatory in Modern Greek (1453-): Αστεροσκοπείο
observatory in Spanish: Observatorio
observatory in Esperanto: Observatorio
observatory in Persian: رصدخانه
observatory in French: Observatoire astronomique
observatory in Galician: Observatorio
observatory in Korean: 천문대
observatory in Croatian: Opservatorij
observatory in Indonesian: Observatorium
observatory in Italian: Osservatorio astronomico
observatory in Hebrew: מצפה כוכבים
observatory in Latvian: Observatorija
observatory in Luxembourgish: Observatoire
observatory in Lithuanian: Observatorija
observatory in Dutch: Sterrenwacht
observatory in Japanese: 天文台
observatory in Polish: Obserwatorium astronomiczne
observatory in Portuguese: Observatório
observatory in Russian: Обсерватория
observatory in Sicilian: Ossirvatoriu astronòmicu
observatory in Simple English: Observatory
observatory in Slovak: Observatórium
observatory in Slovenian: Observatorij
observatory in Serbian: Опсерваторија
observatory in Finnish: Observatorio
observatory in Swedish: Observatorium
observatory in Thai: หอดูดาว
observatory in Turkish: Gözlemevi
observatory in Chinese: 天文台

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Cassegrainian telescope, Newtonian telescope, OAO, OSO, Texas tower, astronomical observatory, astronomical telescope, beacon, belvedere, bleachers, bridge, coelostat, conning tower, coronagraph, coronograph, gallery, gazebo, grandstand, heliostat, lighthouse, lookout, loophole, observation post, orrery, outlook, overlook, peanut gallery, peephole, pharos, planetarium, radar telescope, radio observatory, radio telescope, reflector, refractor, ringside, ringside seat, sighthole, spectrograph, spectroheliograph, spectrohelioscope, spectroscope, telescope, top gallery, tower, watchtower
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