10 Most Important Astronomical Observatories in the World

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Martí Micolau

wikipedia.org, lonelyplanet.com

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What are the 10 best astronomical observatories in the world?

Since his appearance on planet Earth, man has been looking up at the sky and scanning the stars. We have always been looking for answers to the many questions about our Universe: where do we come from, is there life on other planets, are we alone in this limitless space?

From the ancient Sumerian Ziqqurat to the Egyptian Pyramids, man's ingenuity was at the service of astronomical science until August 21, 1609, when Galileo Galilei revolutionized the world with his telescope. Thanks to this tool, which took advantage of the improved use of lenses for astronomical purposes, it was possible to observe the cosmos for the first time.
Directing the first telescope in history into the sky, Galileo first observed the moon and its surface dotted with mountains and craters, paving the way for a series of futuristic scientific discoveries.
Today astronomical research can count on highly technological means and tools, and the power of telescopes allows us to explore areas of space that, only a few years ago, were considered impossible to reach.
There are astronomical observatories scattered around the planet covering an immense surface, always pointing to the sky: let's see which are the most important ones.


  1. Very Large Telescope (VLT), Chile
  2. Mauna Kea Observatory (MKO), Hawaii (USA)
  3. South Pole Telescope (SPT), South Pole, Antarctica
  4. Yerkes Observatory, Wisconsin (U.S.A.)
  5. Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, Canary Islands, Spain
  6. Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico
  7. Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO), Coonabarabran, Australia
  8. Atacama Observatory, University of Tokyo, Chile
  9. Specola Vaticana - Vatican Observatory, Vatican City, Vatican City, Italy
  10. Byurakan Observatory, Armenia
  11. Questions and comments from users

1 - Very large Telescope (VLT), Chile

Open tothe publicYes

The Very large Telescopy (VLT) is considered the most important ground-based astronomy facility at the beginning of the third millennium. The site also houses the world's most advanced optical instrument. There are four main telescopes (Unit Telescopes: UT), equipped with primary mirrors 8.2 meters in diameter, and four mobile auxiliary telescopes (Auxiliary Telescopes: AT), the latter 1.8 meters in diameter. The combination of these tools forms a huge interferometer, the ESO Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI): Astronomers can see details up to 25 times finer compared to those observable with individual telescopes! It is possible to book a visit, free of charge, on the observatory site.

2 - Mauna Kea Observatory (MKO), Hawaii (USA)

Open to the publicYes

Located on top of the Mauna Kea Volcano on the island of Hawaii (the largest island of the archipelago), the Observatory was established in 1967 and is managed by the Universityof Hawaii. It is one of the best places in the world for astronomical observation, thanks to the altitude and isolation of the island, which is located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Visitors can reach the station at an altitude of 2,775 meters, stopping for at least 30 minutes at the lower level to acclimatize to the weather conditions and altitude.
There are 13 telescopes at the observatory, including 9 optical or infrared telescopes, 3 submillimeter telescopes and 1 radio telescope.

3 - South Pole Telescope (SPT), South Pole, Antarctica

Open to the public: yes

It is a 10-meter radio telescope, located at the Amundsen-Scott Base, at the South Pole. The instrument was designed to explore the sky in search of galaxy clusters, taking advantage of some distortions of the cosmic background radiation (CMB).

Recently, thanks to the project called BICEP2, by using this telescope some scientists have made a very important discovery: they have in fact identified very old lights, a trace left by the Big Bang, the event that started everything and where the Universe began to expand.

4 - Yerkes Observatory, Wisconsin (USA)

Open to the publicYes

This astronomical observatory is part of the University ofChicago and is located in the town of Williams Bay, Wisconsin. The Yerkes Observatory is a very old site, created in 1897 and represented at the time a real turning point for structures of this type as was the first observing instrument that also integrated physics and chemistry laboratories.
The building includes a 102 cm refracting telescope, considered the largest in the world until the construction of the Mount Wilson Observatory reflector. It is used for research on globular cluster formation, infrared astronomy and near-Earth objects.

5 - Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, Canary Islands, Spain

Open to thepublic:Yes

The site is managed by theCanary Islands Instituteof Astrophysics and is located on Caldera Taburiente, the main extinct volcano of the island, at an altitude of about 2400 meters. It is one of the best observing sites in the northern hemisphere, also thanks to the particular microclimate of the island that allows clouds to form at low altitude, leaving the sky clear above 1000 - 2000 meters.
One of the astronomical telescopes present there is one of the most important in the world and provides very high resolution images of the solar surface.

6 - Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico

Open to the public:Yes

It is also known as the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC, National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center) and operates through Cornell University thanks to a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (a U.S. government agency).
The observatory's radio telescope consists of an antenna with an aperture of 305 meters and is the largest single aperture telescope ever built in the world.
The structure is famous for producing important scientific discoveries, which include Mercury's rotation period of only 59 days, the periodicity of the Crab Nebula that provided the first well-founded evidence for the existence of neutron stars in the Universe, the first binary pulsar PSR B1913 + 16, for which they will later be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.
It is also known that the radio telescope is part of the SETI @ home project, which led to the discovery, in 2004, of the radio source SHGb02 + 14a, a possible extraterrestrial source.
The site also appears in many movies and TV series, such as the James Bond movie GoldenEye, the TV series The X-Files and the movie Contact, which shows Arecibo as part of the Seti project.

7 - Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO), Coonabarabran, Australia

Open to the publicYes

The AAO is an astronomical observatory built and managed through a UK-Australian partnership, located approximately 450 km northwest of Sydney. The main instruments on site are the Anglo-Australian Telescope, a 3.9 m diameter reflecting telescope and the UK Schmidt Telescope, a 1.2 m diameter reflecting telescope. Thanks to this observatory it was possible to measure the distance of 245,000 galaxies and 23,000 quasars, exploring the large-scale structure of the universe, a great help for a better understanding of the Big Bang Theory.

8 - Atacama Observatory at the University of Tokyo, Chile

Open to the public: yes

On site there are two main telescopes, the MiniTAO Telescope, a Cassegrain telescope with a primary mirror aperture of 1 meter(currently the tallest astronomical observatory in the world) and the Infrared Telescope, a 6.5 meter aperture telescope designed to operate in infrared still under construction.

9 - Specola Vaticana - Vatican Observatory, Vatican City

Open to the public:Yes

Few people know that the Church also has its own observatory: the Vatican Observatory is the astronomical observatory and scientific research center of the Catholic Church, run by the Society of Jesus.
The Castel Gandolfo facility is equipped with four telescopes that no longer host astronomical observing activities due to impractical lighting conditions. Instead, they are used to perform analyses of meteorite collections, to measure their physical properties such as density, porosity, magnetic susceptibility, heat capacity and conductivity.
Since 1986, every two years, the"Vatican Observatory Summer School", open to advanced undergraduate and graduate students in astronomy from all over the world, as well as periodic academic conferences and outreach events open to the public.

10 - Byurakan Observatory, Armenia

Open to the public:Yes

This site is currently managed by theArmenian Academyof Sciences and is located on the slopes of Mount Aragats in Armenia. Initially under the control of the Soviet Union, after the collapse of the latter, the funds available for the observatory were drastically reduced, as was the research activity. Despite this, the site still houses a 2.6-meter Cassegrain reflector, two 1-meter and 0.5-meter Schmidt reflectors, and numerous smaller telescopes.
Several important scientific discoveries can be attributed to the observatory, such as the identification of blazing stars, supernovae, Herbig-Haro objects and cometary nebulae. Two important conferences on the SETI project were also held here.

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