Astronomical Observatories and Institutes

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Astronomical Observatories and Institutes


scientific research institutions conducting studies in astronomy and performing various observations of celestial bodies and phenomena, including observations of artificial space objects. Astronomical observatories and institutes are usually equipped with instruments for conducting observations, such as optical and radio telescopes and with special laboratory instruments for processing (measuring) the obtained materials: photographs; spectrograms; recordings of readings of angle-measuring instruments, of instants of time, of various characteristics of the radiation emitted by celestial bodies; and so forth. Astronomical observatories are typified by their buildings, which are designed for astronomical instruments: cylindrical or polyhedral towers topped with hemispherical domes with opening hatches and pavilions with sliding roofs. Radio telescopes, which are much larger than optical astronomical instruments, are installed under the open sky. Sites offering the optimum astronomical climate—that is, the greatest number of clear days and nights, greatest transparency of the atmosphere, and highest quality of telescopic images of celestial objects—are selected for observational astronomical instruments. They are usually installed outside cities and often on mountains high above sea level. Several astronomical observatories and institutes in the northern hemisphere maintain branches located as close as possible to the equator and sometimes even in the earth’s southern hemisphere in order to observe celestial objects located in the southern sky. Some astronomical observatories are designed for special purposes and conduct observations and studies only in one area of astronomy. These include, for example, latitude stations, which study the motion of the earth’s poles; radio astronomical observatories; mountain stations for solar observation; and stations for optical tracking of artificial earth satellites. Many scientific problems are studied by several astronomical institutions according to coordinated plans. In the USSR the Astronomical Council of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR coordinates the activities of the astronomical observatories and institutes. On an international scale, projects involving cooperative observational and theoretical work are coordinated by branch commissions of the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

The earliest known astronomical observatories, which date back to remote antiquity, were created to meet such practical human needs as methods of calculating time and determining orientation on land and sea. Remains of ancient buildings erected for astronomical purposes have been found in the USSR (Armenia, Uzbekistan), the Near East (Babylon), Mexico, Peru, Great Britain, and elsewhere. Modern-type astronomical observatories began to appear in Europe in the early 17th century, after the invention of the field glass, which in Galileo’s hands, was converted into the telescope. After the construction of several astronomical observatories by the astronomers Tycho Brahe, J. Hevel-ius, W. Herschel, and others, state observatories began to be built primarily for the purpose of developing maritime celestial navigation. These included the Paris Observatory (1667) and the Greenwich Observatory (1675). By the middle of the 20th century, the total number of astronomical observatories and institutes exceeded 500, with over 90 percent located in the northern hemisphere.

In Russia the first astronomical observatory was A. A. Liubimov’s private observatory in Kholmogory, near Arkhangel’sk (1692), and the second was the observatory of the school of Navigation in Moscow (1701). The astronomical observatory of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences was founded in 1726 in the tower of the Kunstkammer building in St. Petersburg (now the M. V. Lomonosov Museum), and the observatory at the University of Vil’no (Vilnius) was opened in 1753. The Pulkovo Observatory and observatories at several universities were established later. Until the October Revolution, only the Pulkovo Observatory had several large instruments and a sizable staff of astronomers. The observatories of the Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Kazan, Odessa, Kharkov, and Iur’ev (Dorpat, Tartu) universities had rather modest equipment, mostly astrometric. Despite this, Russian university-based observatories performed many outstanding scientific studies.

The Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory (Central Astronomical Observatory of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, or GAO AN SSSR) was founded in 1839 near St. Petersburg. During the Great Patriotic War (1941–45), the observatory was completely destroyed but by 1953 it had .been restored and equipped with new large instruments. Astrometric work is also carried out at the Nikolaev Astronomical Observatory, a division of the GAO AN SSSR. The Kislovodsk Mountain Astronomical Station of the GAO AN SSSR conducts complex solar studies. The Simeiz Astronomical Observatory was created in 1908 as a division of the Pulkovo Observatory. Destroyed during the Great Patriotic War, the observatory was restored in 1945 and became part of the new Crimean Astrophysical Observatory of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (KrAO). Among the instruments of the KrAO is Europe’s largest reflector, with a mirror diameter of 2.6 m.

The Computing Institute was founded in Petrograd in 1919 to compile and publish astronomical annuals and ephem-erides; its activities were later expanded (1923) to include work in celestial mechanics, astrophysics, astronomical instrumentation, and gravimetry. It was reorganized in 1943 as the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (ITA).

A number of astronomical observatories and institutes that later became scientific research institutes of the academies of sciences of the Soviet republics were organized in the USSR in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The construction of the Mountain Astrophysical Observatory was begun in the early 1930’s at Abastumani with the help of Leningrad University. The Abastumani Astrophysical Observatory of the Academy of Sciences of the Georgian SSR (AAO) achieved great success in scientific studies in astrophysics and stellar astronomy.

In 1944 construction began on the Central Astronomical Observatory of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR, near Kiev, which is the major astronomical scientific research institution in the Ukraine. Gravimetry and the motion of the earth’s poles are studied at the Poltava Gravimetric Observatory of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR (founded in 1926).

Construction of the Biurakan Astrophysical Observatory of the Academy of Sciences of the Armenian SSR (BAO), 35 km from Yerevan, was begun in 1946. It replaced the University of Yerevan’s astronomical observatory that was founded in 1935. Among other instruments, the Biurakan Observatory has one of the world’s largest 1-m Schmidt telescopes.

Research in astrometry, solar physics, and variable stars is being conducted at the Astronomical Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Uzbek SSR, formerly the Tashkent Astronomical Observatory, which was established in 1873 principally as a center for astronomical and geodetic research in Turkestan. One of the institute’s branches is the Ulug Beg Kitab Latitude Station, which is one of the stations of the International Polar Motion Service.

The Institute of Astrophysics of the Academy of Sciences of the Tadzhik SSR was founded in Dushanbe on the basis of the Stalinabad Astronomical Observatory, which was created in 1932 as one of the centers for the study of variable stars and meteors.

The Institute of Astronomy and Physics was established in 1942 in Alma-Ata, and the Astrophysical Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Kazakh SSR was founded in 1950 as its offshoot. The first large Soviet 50-cm meniscus telescope, designed by D. D. Maksutov, was installed at the institute’s mountain observatory.

Another national observatory was founded in 1945: the Ashkhabad Astrophysical Laboratory of the Turkmen branch of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (later, the Academy of Sciences of the Turkmen SSR). Its basic equipment, including radio location equipment, is designed for the study of meteors and zodiacal light.

The Shemakha Astrophysical Observatory of the Academy of Sciences of the Azerbaijan SSR, which has one of Europe’s largest 2-m reflectors, was established in the mid-1960’s near the city of Shemakha, 150 km from Baku.

The V. Ia. Struve Tartu Astrophysical Observatory of the Academy of Sciences of the Estonian SSR was founded in Toravere, near Tartu, in 1964 and is continuing the work of the Tartu (earlier of the Dorpat and the Iur’ev) Astronomical Observatory founded in 1805.

In addition, observations and scientific research are being conducted at latitude stations in Gorky and Blagoveshchensk, at the solar observatories of the Institute of Terrestrial Magnetism and Radio Wave Propagation of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in Vatutenki, near Moscow, and at the Siberian Institute of Terrestrial Magnetism and Radio Wave Propagation of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in the Vostochnyi Saian Mountains. Construction of the Radio Astrophysics Observatory of the Academy of Sciences of the Latvian SSR at Baldone, near Riga, was basically completed in the 1960’s, as was the construction of the Zvenigorod Experimental Station of the Astronomical Council of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, a specialized astronomical observatory for developing equipment and methods for optical tracking of artificial space objects.

Astronomical observatories and institutes attached to universities were also considerably developed after the October Revolution. The P. K. Shternberg State Astronomical Institute (GAISh) was founded in 1931 on the basis of Moscow University’s astronomical observatory (founded in 1830), Moscow University’s Astronomy and Geodesy Institute (founded in 1922), and the State Astrophysical Institute (founded in 1923). GAISh was moved to a new building in the Lenin Hills in Moscow in 1954, where new instruments were installed. It established a southern station in 1956 near the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory and a mountain station in the mountains near Alma-Ata in 1957.

The successor to the astronomical observatory of the University of St. Petersburg (founded in 1881) is Leningrad University’s Scientific Research Astronomical Observatory, which is equipped with a wide variety of scientific equipment and conducts studies in the physics of the moon and planets, in theoretical astrophysics, in the dynamics of stellar systems, and also for the time service. It has a southern station in Biurakan.

In addition to a municipal astronomical observatory (founded in 1814), the University of Kazan maintains the V. P. Engel’gardt Astronomical Observatory (AOE; founded in 1901), located 20 km from Kazan.

The University of Kiev’s Astronomical Observatory (founded in 1845) has a wide variety of equipment for astrometric work and for studies of the physics of the sun and such minor bodies of the solar system as comets, asteroids, the moon, and meteors. Scientific research is also being pursued by university observatories in Kharkov (founded in 1808), Odessa (founded in 1871), Lvov (founded in 1877), Irkutsk (founded in 1925), Tomsk (founded in 1920), Rostov-on-Don (founded in 1948), Riga (founded in 1925), and Kourovka, near Sverdlovsk (founded in 1964).

In the USSR an astrophysical observatory being constructed (1970) in the Caucasus will have the world’s largest reflector, with a mirror measuring 6 m in diameter.

The most important foreign astronomical institutions are the Greenwich Astronomical Observatory (Great Britain), the Mt. Stromlo Astronomical Observatory (Australia), the Potsdam Astrophysical Observatory (German Democratic Republic), the Tautenburg Astronomical Observatory (GDR), the Kodaikanal Astrophysical Observatory (India), the Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory (Italy), the Victoria Astrophysical Observatory (Canada), the Kraków Astronomical Observatory (Poland), the Washington Naval Observatory (USA), the Harvard Astronomical Observatory (USA), the Yerkes Astronomical Observatory (USA), the Kitt Peak Astronomical Observatory (USA), the Lick Astronomical Observatory (USA), the Mt. Wilson Astronomical Observatory, (USA), the Mt. Palomar Astronomical Observatory (USA), the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (USA), the Haute-Provence Astronomical Observatory (France), the Pic du Midi Astronomical Observatory (France), the Paris Astrophysical Institute (France), the Ondfejov Astronomical Institute (Czechoslovakia), the Lund Astronomical Institute (Sweden), and the Royal Astronomical Observatory (South Africa).

The launching of aerostat balloons carrying astronomical equipment, geophysical rockets, artificial earth satellites, and space probes has made it possible to expand astronomical research programs and to bring astronomical observatories beyond the confines of the earth’s dense atmosphere into interplanetary space.


Astronomiia v SSSR za sorok let, 1917–1957. Moscow, 1960. (Collection of articles.)
Teleskopy. Editedby G. Kuiperand B. Middlehurst. Moscow, 1963. (Translated from English.)
Razvitie astronomii v SSSR. Moscow, 1967.
Rigaux, F. Les Observatoires astronomiques et les astronomes. Brussels, 1959.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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