Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Center for Astrophysics at Harvard.jpg
The Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA) Headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) has been joined with the CfA since 1973.
PurposeResearch in astronomy, astrophysics, Earth, and space sciences
Headquarters60 Garden Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
Charles R. Alcock

The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) is a research institute of the Smithsonian Institution, concentrating on astrophysical studies including galactic and extragalactic astronomy, cosmology, solar, earth and planetary sciences, theory and instrumentation, using observations at wavelengths from the highest energy gamma rays to the radio, along with gravitational waves.  Established in Washington, D.C., in 1890, the SAO moved its headquarters in 1955 to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where its research is a collaboration with the Harvard College Observatory (HCO) and the Harvard University Department of Astronomy. In 1973, the Smithsonian and Harvard formalized the collaboration as the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA) under a single Director.


The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) on the South Yard of the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, D.C., in 1909. In 1973, SAO moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and unified with the Harvard College Observatory to form the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Samuel Pierpont Langley, the third Secretary of the Smithsonian, founded the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory on the south yard of the Smithsonian Castle (on the U.S. National Mall) on March 1,1890. The Astrophysical Observatory's initial, primary purpose was to "record the amount and character of the Sun's heat[1]". Charles Greeley Abbot was named SAO's first director, and the observatory operated solar telescopes to take daily measurements of the Sun's intensity in different regions of the optical electromagnetic spectrum. In doing so, the observatory enabled Abbot to make critical refinements to the Solar constant, as well as to serendipitously discover Solar variability. It is likely that SAO's early history as a solar observatory was part of the inspiration behind the Smithsonian's "sunburst" logo, designed in 1965 by Crimilda Pontes.[2]

In 1955, the scientific headquarters of SAO moved from Washington, D.C. to Cambridge, Massachusetts to affiliate with the Harvard College Observatory (HCO).[1] Fred Lawrence Whipple, then the chairman of the Harvard Astronomy Department, was named the new director of SAO. The collaborative relationship between SAO and HCO therefore predates the official creation of the CfA by 18 years. SAO's move to Harvard's campus also resulted in a rapid expansion of its research program. Following the launch of Sputnik (the world's first human-made satellite) in 1957, SAO accepted a national challenge[3] to create a worldwide satellite-tracking network, collaborating with the United States Air Force on Project Space Track.

With the creation of NASA the following year and throughout the space race, SAO led major efforts in the development of orbiting observatories and large ground-based telescopes, laboratory and theoretical astrophysics, as well as the application of computers to astrophysical problems.

SAO Director Years as Director
Samuel Pierpont Langley 1890–1906
Charles Greeley Abbot 1906-1942
Loyal Blaine Aldrich 1942-1955
Fred Lawrence Whipple 1955-1973
George B. Field 1973-1982
Irwin I. Shapiro 1982-2004
Charles R. Alcock 2004-present

Remote stations

SAO has operated a number of remote stations over the years.[4][5]

Station Type Latitude Longitude El. (m) Opened Closed Coordinates
Mount Wilson, California Solar 34º13'N 118º56'W 1737 1908 1920 34°13′N 118°56′W / 34.217°N 118.933°W / 34.217; -118.933
Hump Mountain, North Carolina Solar 36º8'N 82º0'W 1500 1917 1918 36°8′N 82°0′W / 36.133°N 82.000°W / 36.133; -82.000
Calama, Chile Solar 22º28'S 68º56'W 2250 1918 1920 22°28′S 68°56′W / 22.467°S 68.933°W / -22.467; -68.933
Mount Montezuma, Chile Solar 22º40'S 68º56'W 2711 1920 ? 22°40′S 68°56′W / 22.667°S 68.933°W / -22.667; -68.933
Mount Harquahala, Arizona Solar 33º48'N 113º20'W 1721 1920 1925 33°48′N 113°20′W / 33.800°N 113.333°W / 33.800; -113.333
Table Mountain, California Solar 34º22'N 117º41'W 2286 1925 1962 34°22′N 117°41′W / 34.367°N 117.683°W / 34.367; -117.683
Mount Brukkaros, Namibia Solar 25º52'S 17º48'E 1586 1926 1931 25°52′S 17°48′E / 25.867°S 17.800°E / -25.867; 17.800
Mount Saint Catherine, Egypt Solar 28º31'N 33º56'E 2591 1934 1937 28°31′N 33°56′E / 28.517°N 33.933°E / 28.517; 33.933
Burro Mountain, New Mexico Solar 32º40'N 108º33'W 2440 1938 1946 32°40′N 108°33′W / 32.667°N 108.550°W / 32.667; -108.550
Organ Pass, New Mexico Space Track 32º25'N 253º27'E 32°25′N 106°33′W / 32.417°N 106.550°W / 32.417; -106.550
Olifantsfontein, South Africa Space Track 25º58'S 28º15'E 25°58′S 28°15′E / 25.967°S 28.250°E / -25.967; 28.250
Woomera, Australia Space Track 31º06'S 136º46'E 31°06′S 136°46′E / 31.100°S 136.767°E / -31.100; 136.767
Cadiz, Spain Space Track 36º28'N 353º48'E 36°28′N 6°12′W / 36.467°N 6.200°W / 36.467; -6.200
Shiraz, Iran Space Track 29º38'N 52º31'E 29°38′N 52°31′E / 29.633°N 52.517°E / 29.633; 52.517
Curaçao, Netherlands West Indies Space Track 12º05'N 291º10'E 12°05′N 68°50′W / 12.083°N 68.833°W / 12.083; -68.833
Jupiter, Florida Space Track 27º01'N 279º53'E 27°01′N 80°07′W / 27.017°N 80.117°W / 27.017; -80.117
Haleakala, Hawaii Space Track 20º43'N 203º45'E 20°43′N 156°15′W / 20.717°N 156.250°W / 20.717; -156.250
Villa Dolores, Argentina Space Track 31º57'S 294º54'E 31°57′S 65°06′W / 31.950°S 65.100°W / -31.950; -65.100
Mitaka, Japan Space Track
Nani Tal, India Space Track
Arequipa, Peru Solar,
Space Track
Oak Ridge Observatory

SAO Today

Charles R. Alcock, the current Director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

The current director of the SAO is Charles R. Alcock (2004 to present). There are currently about 170 research staff working at the SAO, including affiliated research staff. In addition, the SAO has about 120 postdoctoral researchers/fellows working in five competitive, associated fellowship programs: CfA, Clay, SMA, ITAMP, and Leon Van Speybroeck, or in support of a contract or grant. (Additional postdocs do research via Harvard fellowship programs or national/international fellowship awards); about 40% of the postdoctoral community are women and about 12% are from minority populations. SAO scientists can supervise Harvard Ph.D students, and in addition they typically supervise about 30 graduate students from other institutions who are pursuing Ph.D. theses at the SAO. About thirty undergraduate students intern at the SAO each year. All together there are about 950 staff (including administrative and management department employees) working at the Center.

The first image of the photon ring of a black hole (M87*), captured by the Event Horizon Telescope. SAO plays a central role in the project.[6]



  1. ^ a b DeVorkin, David H. (2018). Fred Whipple's Empire: The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, 1955-1973. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.
  2. ^ Anonymous (2020-03-24). "Crimilda Pontes: The Original Designer of the Smithsonian Sunburst". Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved 2020-04-29.
  3. ^ Spiller, James (2015). "Rising to the Sputnik Challenge". In Spiller, James (ed.). Frontiers for the American Century. Frontiers for the American Century: Outer Space, Antarctica, and Cold War Nationalism. Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology. Palgrave Macmillan US. pp. 21–64. doi:10.1057/9781137507877_2. ISBN 978-1-137-50787-7.
  4. ^ Wright, F. W.; Hodge, P. W. (1965). "The Volcanic Dust Sampling Program of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observing Stations". SAO Special Report #172 (1965). 172: 172. Bibcode:1965SAOSR.172.....W.
  5. ^ Roosen, Robert G.; Angione, Ronald J. (1977). "Variations in Atmospheric Water Vapor: Baseline Results from Smithsonian Observations". Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. 89: 814. Bibcode:1977PASP...89..814R. doi:10.1086/130233.
  6. ^ "CfA Plays Central Role In Capturing Landmark Black Hole Image". www.cfa.harvard.edu/. 2019-04-09. Retrieved 2020-04-27.
  7. ^ a b c d e f "SAO Directors: 1834 - Present". Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Retrieved 2015-09-03.
  8. ^ "Charles Alcock Named Director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics". Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Retrieved 2015-09-17.

External links

Coordinates: 42°22′53″N 71°07′42″W / 42.38146°N 71.12837°W / 42.38146; -71.12837

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