Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

Last updated
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
PurposeResearch in astronomy, astrophysics, Earth, and space sciences
Headquarters60 Garden Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
Lisa Kewley

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.



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. [4]

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 DirectorYears 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 2004-2022
Lisa Kewley 2022-present

Remote stations

SAO has operated a number of remote stations over the years. [5] [6]

StationTypeLatitudeLongitudeEl. (m)OpenedClosedCoordinates
Mount Wilson, California Solar34º13'N118º56'W173719081920 34°13′N118°56′W / 34.217°N 118.933°W / 34.217; -118.933
Hump Mountain, North Carolina Solar36º8'N82º0'W150019171918 36°8′N82°00′W / 36.133°N 82.000°W / 36.133; -82.000
Calama, Chile Solar22º28'S68º56'W225019181920 22°28′S68°56′W / 22.467°S 68.933°W / -22.467; -68.933
Mount Montezuma, ChileSolar22º40'S68º56'W27111920 ? 22°40′S68°56′W / 22.667°S 68.933°W / -22.667; -68.933
Mount Harquahala, Arizona Solar33º48'N113º20'W172119201925 33°48′N113°20′W / 33.800°N 113.333°W / 33.800; -113.333
Table Mountain, California Solar34º22'N117º41'W228619251962 34°22′N117°41′W / 34.367°N 117.683°W / 34.367; -117.683
Mount Brukkaros, Namibia Solar25º52'S17º48'E158619261931 25°52′S17°48′E / 25.867°S 17.800°E / -25.867; 17.800
Mount Saint Catherine, Egypt Solar28º31'N33º56'E259119341937 28°31′N33°56′E / 28.517°N 33.933°E / 28.517; 33.933
Burro Mountain, New Mexico Solar32º40'N108º33'W244019381946 32°40′N108°33′W / 32.667°N 108.550°W / 32.667; -108.550
Organ Pass, New Mexico Space Track32º25'N106º33'W 32°25′N106°33′W / 32.417°N 106.550°W / 32.417; -106.550
Parnamirim, Brazil Space Track05º55'S35º09'W39019661976 05°55′S35°09′W / 5.917°S 35.150°W / -5.917; -35.150
Olifantsfontein, South AfricaSpace Track25º58'S28º15'E 25°58′S28°15′E / 25.967°S 28.250°E / -25.967; 28.250
Woomera, Australia Space Track31º06'S136º46'E 31°06′S136°46′E / 31.100°S 136.767°E / -31.100; 136.767
Cadiz, Spain Space Track36º28'N353º48'E 36°28′N6°12′W / 36.467°N 6.200°W / 36.467; -6.200
Shiraz, Iran Space Track29º38'N52º31'E 29°38′N52°31′E / 29.633°N 52.517°E / 29.633; 52.517
Curaçao, Netherlands West Indies Space Track12º05'N291º10'E 12°05′N68°50′W / 12.083°N 68.833°W / 12.083; -68.833
Jupiter, Florida Space Track27º01'N279º53'E 27°01′N80°07′W / 27.017°N 80.117°W / 27.017; -80.117
Haleakala, Hawaii Space Track20º43'N203º45'E 20°43′N156°15′W / 20.717°N 156.250°W / 20.717; -156.250
Villa Dolores, Argentina Space Track31º57'S294º54'E 31°57′S65°06′W / 31.950°S 65.100°W / -31.950; -65.100
Mitaka, Japan Space Track
Nanital, India Space Track29°23'N79°27'E20842004 29°23′N79°27′E / 29.383°N 79.450°E / 29.383; 79.450
Arequipa, Peru Solar,
Space Track
Oak Ridge Observatory

SAO Today

The current director of the SAO is Lisa Kewley (2022 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. Black hole - Messier 87 crop max res.jpg
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.



See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Williamina Fleming</span> Scottish astronomer (1857–1911)

Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming was a Scottish astronomer. She was a single mother hired by the director of the Harvard College Observatory to help in the photographic classification of stellar spectra. She helped develop a common designation system for stars and cataloged more than ten thousand stars, 59 gaseous nebulae, over 310 variable stars, and 10 novae and other astronomical phenomena. Among several career achievements that advanced astronomy, Fleming is noted for her discovery of the Horsehead Nebula in 1888.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Charles Greeley Abbot</span> American astrophysicist

Charles Greeley Abbot was an American astrophysicist and the fifth secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, serving from 1928 until 1944. Abbot went from being director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, to becoming Assistant Secretary, and then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution over the course of his career. As an astrophysicist, he researched the solar constant, research that led him to invent the solar cooker, solar boiler, solar still, and other patented solar energy inventions.

Sallie Louise Baliunas is a retired astrophysicist. She formerly worked at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian and was the Deputy Director of the Mount Wilson Observatory from 1991 to 2003.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fred Lawrence Whipple</span> American astronomer

Fred Lawrence Whipple was an American astronomer, who worked at the Harvard College Observatory for more than 70 years. Amongst his achievements were asteroid and comet discoveries, the "dirty snowball" hypothesis of comets, and the invention of the Whipple shield.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Harvard College Observatory</span> Astronomical observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

The Harvard College Observatory (HCO) is an institution managing a complex of buildings and multiple instruments used for astronomical research by the Harvard University Department of Astronomy. It is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, and was founded in 1839. With the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, it forms part of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy</span> Operating consortium for observatories and telescopes

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) is a consortium of universities and other institutions that operates astronomical observatories and telescopes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Oak Ridge Observatory</span> Observatory in Harvard, Massachusetts

The Oak Ridge Observatory, also known as the George R. Agassiz Station, is located at 42 Pinnacle Road, Harvard, Massachusetts. It was operated by the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian as a facility of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) from 1933 until August 19, 2005.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics</span> Astronomical observatory in Massachusetts, US

The Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA), previously known as the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is an astrophysics research institute jointly operated by the Harvard College Observatory and Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Founded in 1973 and headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, the CfA leads a broad program of research in astronomy, astrophysics, Earth and space sciences, as well as science education. The CfA either leads or participates in the development and operations of more than fifteen ground- and space-based astronomical research observatories across the electromagnetic spectrum, including the forthcoming Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, one of NASA's Great Observatories.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory</span> American astronomical observatory in Arizona

The Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory is an American astronomical observatory owned and operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO); it is their largest field installation outside of their main site in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is located near Amado, Arizona on the summit, a ridge and at the foot of Mount Hopkins.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hinode (satellite)</span> Japanese satellite

Hinode, formerly Solar-B, is a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency Solar mission with United States and United Kingdom collaboration. It is the follow-up to the Yohkoh (Solar-A) mission and it was launched on the final flight of the M-V rocket from Uchinoura Space Center, Japan on 22 September 2006 at 21:36 UTC. Initial orbit was perigee height 280 km, apogee height 686 km, inclination 98.3 degrees. Then the satellite maneuvered to the quasi-circular Sun-synchronous orbit over the day/night terminator, which allows near-continuous observation of the Sun. On 28 October 2006, the probe's instruments captured their first images.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Operation Moonwatch</span> Citizen science project

Operation Moonwatch was an amateur science program formally initiated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in 1956. The SAO organized Moonwatch as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) which was probably the largest single scientific undertaking in history. Its initial goal was to enlist the aid of amateur astronomers and other citizens who would help professional scientists spot the first artificial satellites. Until professionally staffed optical tracking stations came on-line in 1958, this network of amateur scientists and other interested citizens played a critical role in providing crucial information regarding the world's first satellites.

Herbert Gursky was the Superintendent of the Naval Research Laboratory's Space Science Division and Chief Scientist of the E.O. Hulburt Center for Space Research.

Lisa Jennifer Kewley is an Australian Astrophysicist and current Director of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. Previously, Kewley was Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3-D and ARC Laureate Fellow at the Australian National University College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, where she was also a Professor. Specialising in galaxy evolution, she won the Annie Jump Cannon Award in Astronomy in 2005 for her studies of oxygen in galaxies, and the Newton Lacy Pierce Prize in Astronomy in 2008. In 2014 she was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. In 2020 she received the James Craig Watson Medal. In 2021 she was elected as an international member of the National Academy of Sciences. In 2022 she became the first female director of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.

The High Energy Astronomy Observatory Program was a NASA program of the late 1970s and early 1980s that included a series of three large low-Earth-orbiting spacecraft for X-ray and Gamma-Ray astronomy and Cosmic-Ray investigations. After launch, they were denoted HEAO 1, HEAO 2, and HEAO 3, respectively. The large (~3000 kg) satellites were 3-axis stabilized to arc-minute accuracy, with fixed solar panels. All three observatories were launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Atlas-Centaur SLV-3D launch vehicles into near-circular orbits with initial altitudes slightly above 500 km.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">George B. Field</span> American astrophysicist

George B. Field is an American astrophysicist.

Loyal Blaine Aldrich was an American astrophysicist and astronomer of the Smithsonian Institution. Upon graduation from the University of Wisconsin in 1907, Aldrich became a Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory assistant to Charles Greeley Abbot. The observatory conducted astrophysical research on solar radiation and the amount of energy from the Sun that strikes the outer edge of the Earth's atmosphere. Abbot became director of the observatory in 1907 and established solar observing stations in the United States, South America, and Africa to carry out research on solar radiation. Aldrich became director of the observatory from 1942 to 1955. Harvard University astronomy department chairman Fred Lawrence Whipple became director of the observatory when Aldrich retired.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Belinda Wilkes</span> English astrophysicist

Belinda Jane Wilkes is a Senior Astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US, and former director of the Chandra X-ray Center.

Patrick Thaddeus was an American professor and finished his career as the Robert Wheeler Willson Professor of Applied Astronomy Emeritus at Harvard University. He is best known for mapping carbon monoxide in the Milky Way galaxy and was responsible for the construction of the CfA 1.2 m Millimeter-Wave Telescope.

Giovanni Fazio is an American physicist at Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. He is an astrophysicist who has initiated and participated in multiple observation programs.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alexey Vikhlinin</span>

Alexey Vikhlinin is a Russian-American astrophysicist notable for achievements in the astrophysics of high energy phenomenon, namely galaxy cluster cosmology and the design of space-based X-ray observatories. He is currently a senior astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, part of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was recently the Science and Technology Definition Team (STDT) Community Co-chair for the Lynx X-ray Observatory, a NASA-funded Large Mission Concept Study under consideration by the 2020 Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics.


  1. 1 2 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. 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.{{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  4. Sturdevant, Rick W. (Winter 2008). "From Satellite Tracking to Space Situational Awareness: The USAF and Space Surveillance: 1957 to 2007" (PDF). Air Power History. U.S. Air Force Historical Society. Retrieved 2021-06-23.{{cite magazine}}: CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  5. 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.
  6. 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 .
  7. "CfA Plays Central Role In Capturing Landmark Black Hole Image". 2019-04-09. Retrieved 2020-04-27.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "SAO Directors: 1834 - Present". Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Retrieved 2015-09-03.
  9. "Charles Alcock Named Director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics". Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Retrieved 2015-09-17.
  10. "Lisa Kewley Named Director of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian". 2022-03-14. Retrieved 2022-08-16.

42°22′53″N71°07′42″W / 42.38146°N 71.12837°W / 42.38146; -71.12837