List of highest astronomical observatories

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View showing several of the world's highest observatory sites in Chile, looking north across the Llano de Chajnantor and ALMA site, with the peaks of Cerro Toco (right center) and Cerro Chajnantor (right) rising above.
Particle detector at Chacaltaya Astrophysical Observatory, the highest permanent astronomical observatory in the world from the 1940s through 2009.
Atacama Cosmology Telescope on Cerro Toco, just north of the Llano de Chajnantor.
View looking northeast across the Llano de Chajnantor and the first two ALMA antennas in late 2009, with Cerro Chajnantor rising above at right.
The Indian Astronomical Observatory stands at an altitude of 4,500 m (14,800 ft) on Mount Saraswati in Ladakh, India.
Aerial view of part of the Mauna Kea Observatory, showing Subaru, Keck, and IRTF telescopes (left to right).

This is a list of the highest astronomical observatories in the world, considering only ground-based observatories and ordered by elevation above mean sea level. The main list includes only permanent observatories with facilities constructed at a fixed location, followed by a supplementary list for temporary observatories such as transportable telescopes or instrument packages. For large observatories with numerous telescopes at a single location, only a single entry is included listing the main elevation of the observatory or of the highest operational instrument if that information is available.

History of high altitude astronomical observatories[edit]

Prior to the late 19th century, almost all astronomical observatories throughout history were located at modest elevations, often close to cities and educational institutions for the simple reason of convenience.[1] As air pollution from industrialization and light pollution from artificial lighting increased during the Industrial Revolution, astronomers sought observatory sites in remote locations with clear and dark skies, naturally drawing them towards the mountains. The first permanent mountaintop astronomical observatory was the Lick Observatory constructed from 1876 to 1887, at the modest elevation of 1,283 m (4,209 ft) atop Mount Hamilton in California.[2] The first high altitude observatory was constructed atop the 2,877 m (9,439 ft) Pic du Midi de Bigorre in the French Pyrenees starting in 1878, with its first telescope and dome installed in 1904.[3] Astronomical observations were also made from Mont Blanc in the late 1800s.[4]

A few other high altitude observatories (such as the Lowell Observatory in Arizona and Sphinx Observatory in Switzerland) were constructed through the first half of the 20th century. However, the two most important and prominent of the early 20th century observatories, Mount Wilson Observatory and Palomar Observatory, were both located on mid-elevation mountaintops of about 1,700 m (5,600 ft) in southern California.[5] The stunning successes and discoveries made there using the world's largest telescopes, the 100-inch Hooker Telescope and 200-inch Hale Telescope, spurred the move to ever higher sites for the new generation of observatories and telescopes after World War II, along with a worldwide search for locations which had the best astronomical seeing.

Since the mid-20th century, an increasing number of high altitude observatory sites have been developed at locations around the world, including numerous sites in Arizona, Hawaii, Chile, and the Canary Islands.[6][7] The initial wave of high-altitude sites were mostly in the 2,000–2,500 m (6,600–8,200 ft) range, but astronomers soon sought even higher sites above 3,000 m (9,800 ft). Among the largest, best developed, and most renowned of these high altitude sites is the Mauna Kea Observatory located near the summit of a 4,205 m (13,796 ft) volcano in Hawaii, which has grown to include over a dozen major telescopes during the four decades since it was founded. In the first decade of the 21st century, there has been a new wave of observatory construction at very high altitudes above 4,500 m (14,800 ft), with such observatories constructed in India, Mexico, and most notably the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, now the site of several of the world's highest observatories. The scientific benefits of these sites outweigh the numerous logistical and physiological challenges which must be overcome during the construction and operation of observatories in remote mountain locations, even in desert, polar, and tropical island sites which magnify the challenges but confer additional observational advantages.

Sites at high altitude are ideal for optical astronomy and provide optimal seeing, being above a significant portion of the Earth's atmosphere with its associated weather, turbulence, and diminished clarity. In particular, sites on mountaintops within about 80 km (50 mi) of the ocean often have excellent observing conditions above a stable inversion layer throughout much of the year.[8] High altitude sites are also above most of atmosphere's water vapor, making them ideal for infrared astronomy and submillimeter astronomy as those wavelengths are strongly absorbed by water vapor. On the other hand, high altitude does not offer as significant an advantage for radio astronomy at longer wavelengths, so relatively few radio telescopes are located at such sites. At the far end of the spectrum, for the extremely short wavelengths of x-ray and gamma ray astronomy, along with high-energy cosmic rays, high altitude observations once again offers significant advantages, enough that many experiments at these wavelengths have been conducted by balloon-borne or even by space telescopes, although a number of high-altitude ground-based sites have also been used. These include the Chacaltaya Astrophysical Observatory in Bolivia, which at 5,230 m (17,160 ft) was the world's highest permanent astronomical observatory[9] from the time of its construction during the 1940s until surpassed in 2009 by the new University of Tokyo Atacama Observatory,[10] an optical-infrared telescope on a remote 5,640 m (18,500 ft) mountaintop in Chile.

Highest permanent observatories[edit]

Permanent observatories above 3,000 m:

Observatory Name Elevation Observatory Site Location Coordinates Established Type of Observatory Major Instruments
University of Tokyo Atacama Observatory (TAO) 5,640 m (18,500 ft)[10] Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Desert, Chile 22°59′12″S 67°44′32″W / 22.98667°S 67.74222°W / -22.98667; -67.74222 2009[10] Optical, infrared
Chacaltaya Astrophysical Observatory 5,230 m (17,160 ft)[9] Chacaltaya Andes, Bolivia 16°21′12″S 68°07′53″W / 16.35333°S 68.13139°W / -16.35333; -68.13139 1946[9] Cosmic ray, gamma ray
James Ax Observatory 5,200 m (17,100 ft) Cerro Toco Atacama Desert, Chile 22°57′30″S 67°47′10″W / 22.95833°S 67.78611°W / -22.95833; -67.78611 2011 Microwave POLARBEAR
Atacama Cosmology Telescope 5,190 m (17,030 ft) Cerro Toco Atacama Desert, Chile 22°57′31″S 67°47′16″W / 22.95861°S 67.78778°W / -22.95861; -67.78778 2007 Microwave
Llano de Chajnantor Observatory 5,104 m (16,745 ft) Llano de Chajnantor Atacama Desert, Chile 23°01′22″S 67°45′17″W / 23.02278°S 67.75472°W / -23.02278; -67.75472 1999 Millimeter wave, submillimeter ALMA, APEX, QUIET
Shiquanhe Observatory
(NAOC Ali Observatory)[11]
5,100 m (16,700 ft)[12] Shiquanhe, Ngari Plateau Tibet Autonomous Region, China 32°19′N 80°01′E / 32.317°N 80.017°E / 32.317; 80.017 2011 Optical
Large Latin American Millimeter Array (LLAMA) 4,825 m (15,830 ft) Alto de Chorillos Salta, Argentina 24°11′31″S 66°28′29″W / 24.19194°S 66.47472°W / -24.19194; -66.47472 Under Construction Submillimeter LLAMA
Llano de Chajnantor Observatory 4,800 m (15,700 ft) Pampa La Bola Atacama Desert, Chile 22°58′17″S 67°42′10″W / 22.97139°S 67.70278°W / -22.97139; -67.70278 2002 Submillimeter ASTE, NANTEN2
Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano 4,580 m (15,030 ft) Sierra Negra Puebla, Mexico 18°59′06″N 97°18′53″W / 18.98500°N 97.31472°W / 18.98500; -97.31472 2006 Microwave
Indian Astronomical Observatory 4,500 m (14,800 ft) Mount Saraswati[13] Hanle, Ladakh, India 32°46′46″N 78°57′51″E / 32.77944°N 78.96417°E / 32.77944; 78.96417 2001 Infrared, gamma ray, Optical[14] Himalayan Chandra Telescope, HAGAR
Meyer-Womble Observatory 4,312 m (14,147 ft) Mount Evans Colorado, United States 39°35′12″N 105°38′24″W / 39.58667°N 105.64000°W / 39.58667; -105.64000 1996 Optical, Infrared
Yangbajing International Cosmic Ray Observatory 4,300 m (14,100 ft)[15] Yangbajain Tibet Autonomous Region, China 30°05′N 90°33′E / 30.083°N 90.550°E / 30.083; 90.550 1990[16] Cosmic ray
Mauna Kea Observatory 4,190 m (13,750 ft)[17] Mauna Kea Hawaii, United States 19°49′28″N 155°28′24″W / 19.82444°N 155.47333°W / 19.82444; -155.47333 1967 Optical, infrared, submillimeter Keck, UKIRT, Gemini North, Subaru, JCMT, CSO, SMA, CFHT
High Altitude Water Cherenkov (HAWC) Gamma-Ray Observatory 4,100 m (13,500 ft) Sierra Negra Puebla, Mexico 18°59′40″N 97°18′33″W / 18.99444°N 97.30917°W / 18.99444; -97.30917 2013 Gamma ray
Barcroft Observatory[18] 3,890 m (12,760 ft)[19] White Mountain Peak California, United States 37°35′19″N 118°14′31″W / 37.58861°N 118.24194°W / 37.58861; -118.24194 1976 Infrared, millimeter wave
Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), Mauna Kea Site 3,730 m (12,240 ft)[20] Mauna Kea Hawaii, United States 19°48′05″N 155°27′20″W / 19.80139°N 155.45556°W / 19.80139; -155.45556 1986 Radio telescope
Llano del Hato National Astronomical Observatory 3,600 m (11,800 ft) Llano del Hato Andes, Venezuela 8°47′11″N 70°52′19″W / 8.78639°N 70.87194°W / 8.78639; -70.87194 1970s Optical telescope 1-m Askania Schmidt camera, a 65-cm Zeiss refractor, a 1-m Zeiss reflector and a 50-cm Askania double astrograph
Sphinx Observatory 3,571 m (11,716 ft) Jungfraujoch Bernese Alps, Switzerland 46°32′51″N 7°59′6″E / 46.54750°N 7.98500°E / 46.54750; 7.98500 1937 Optical telescope
Mauna Loa Observatory 3,394 m (11,135 ft) Mauna Loa Hawaii, United States 19°32′10″N 155°34′34″W / 19.53611°N 155.57611°W / 19.53611; -155.57611 1957 Optical, millimeter wave Mauna Loa Solar Observatory, AMiBA
Magdalena Ridge Observatory 3,230 m (10,600 ft) South Baldy New Mexico, United States 33°58′36″N 107°11′05″W / 33.97667°N 107.18472°W / 33.97667; -107.18472 1999 Optical, infrared
Mount Graham International Observatory 3,191 m (10,469 ft) Mount Graham Arizona, United States 32°42′05″N 109°53′31″W / 32.70139°N 109.89194°W / 32.70139; -109.89194 1993 Optical, submillimeter LBT, HHST, VATT
Gornergrat Observatory 3,135 m (10,285 ft) Gornergrat Pennine Alps, Switzerland 45°59′04″N 7°47′09″E / 45.98444°N 7.78583°E / 45.98444; 7.78583 1967 Infrared, submillimeter Gornergrat Infrared Telescope, KOSMA
Peak Terskol Observatory 3,127 m (10,259 ft) Peak Terskol North Caucasus, Russia 43°16′29″S 42°30′03″E / 43.27472°S 42.50083°E / -43.27472; 42.50083 1980 Optical
European Extremely Large Telescope 3,060 m (10,040 ft) Cerro Armazones Atacama Desert, Chile 24°35′20″S 70°11′32″W / 24.58889°S 70.19222°W / -24.58889; -70.19222 Not completed Optical, near infrared
Haleakala Observatory 3,036 m (9,961 ft)[21] Haleakala Hawaii, United States 20°42′30″N 156°15′27″W / 20.70833°N 156.25750°W / 20.70833; -156.25750 1964 Optical, millimeter wave Pan-STARRS, LCOGTFaulkes Telescope North, AEOS

Highest temporary observatories[edit]

Temporary observatories above 3,000 m:

Observatory Name Elevation Observatory Site Location Coordinates Established Type of Observatory Major Instruments
Receiver Lab Telescope[22] 5,525 m (18,127 ft) Cerro Sairecabur Atacama Desert, Chile 22°43′0″S 67°53′30″W / 22.71667°S 67.89167°W / -22.71667; -67.89167 2002 Submillimeter, 1-2 THz[23]
PLATO (PLATeau Observatory) [24] 4,091 m (13,422 ft) Dome A East Antarctic Ice Sheet, Antarctica 80°22′S 77°21′E / 80.367°S 77.350°E / -80.367; 77.350 2008 Optical, submillimeter
Concordia Station 3,233 m (10,607 ft) Dome C East Antarctic Ice Sheet, Antarctica 75°06′S 123°20′E / 75.100°S 123.333°E / -75.100; 123.333 2005 Optical, infrared, submillimeter[25]

Other important high altitude observatories[edit]

This is a selected list of the most important and notable high altitude observatories between 1700 and 3000 m; it is not intended to list all of the numerous observatories worldwide in this elevation range:

Observatory Name Elevation Observatory Site Location Coordinates Established Type of Observatory Major Instruments
Pic du Midi Observatory 2,877 m (9,439 ft) Pic du Midi de Bigorre Pyrenees, France 42°56′11″N 00°08′34″E / 42.93639°N 0.14278°E / 42.93639; 0.14278 1878 Optical, solar
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station /
Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory[26]
2,835 m (9,301 ft) South Pole East Antarctic Ice Sheet, Antarctica 90°00′S 139°16′W / 90.000°S 139.267°W / -90.000; -139.267 1994 Microwave, millimeter, neutrino, submillimeter SPT, AMANDA, IceCube, QUaD
Cerro Armazones Observatory 2,817 m (9,242 ft) Cerro Armazones Atacama Desert, Chile 24°35′54″S 70°12′04″W / 24.59833°S 70.20111°W / -24.59833; -70.20111 1995 Optical telescope Hexapod-Telescope
National Astronomical Observatory (Mexico) 2,800 m (9,200 ft) Sierra de San Pedro Mártir Baja California, Mexico 31°02′39″N 115°27′49″W / 31.04417°N 115.46361°W / 31.04417; -115.46361 1967 Optical telescope
Apache Point Observatory 2,788 m (9,147 ft) Sacramento Peak New Mexico, United States 32°46′49″N 105°49′13″W / 32.78028°N 105.82028°W / 32.78028; -105.82028 1984 Optical, solar SDSS, Dunn Solar Telescope
Cerro Pachón 2,722 m (8,930 ft) Cerro Pachón Atacama Desert, Chile 30°14′27″S 70°44′12″W / 30.24083°S 70.73667°W / -30.24083; -70.73667 2000 Optical, infrared Gemini South, SOAR
National Astronomical Observatory (Colombia) 2,640 m (8,660 ft) Metropolitan Area of Bogotá Bogotá, Colombia 04°35′46″N 74°04′39″W / 4.59611°N 74.07750°W / 4.59611; -74.07750 1803 Optical telescope
Paranal Observatory 2,635 m (8,645 ft) Cerro Paranal Atacama Desert, Chile 24°37′38″S 70°24′15″W / 24.62722°S 70.40417°W / -24.62722; -70.40417 1999 Optical, infrared VLT, VISTA
Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory 2,606 m (8,550 ft) Mount Hopkins Arizona, United States 31°40′52″N 110°52′42″W / 31.68111°N 110.87833°W / 31.68111; -110.87833 1966 Optical, gamma ray MMT, VERITAS
Roque de los Muchachos Observatory 2,396 m (7,861 ft) Roque de los Muchachos La Palma, Canary Islands 28°46′N 17°53′W / 28.767°N 17.883°W / 28.767; -17.883 1979 Optical, infrared, solar, gamma ray MAGIC, GTC, WHT, TNG, NOT, INT
Teide Observatory 2,390 m (7,840 ft) Pico del Teide Tenerife, Canary Islands 28°18′00″N 16°30′35″W / 28.30000°N 16.50972°W / 28.30000; -16.50972 1964 Optical, solar, microwave VTT, BRT, OGS, VSA
La Silla Observatory 2,380 m (7,810 ft)[27] La Silla Atacama Desert, Chile 29°15′15″S 70°44′22″W / 29.25417°S 70.73944°W / -29.25417; -70.73944 1969 Optical telescope NTT, ESO
Las Campanas Observatory 2,380 m (7,810 ft)[28] Cerro Las Campanas Atacama Desert, Chile 29°00′54″S 70°41′32″W / 29.01500°S 70.69222°W / -29.01500; -70.69222 1971 Optical telescope Magellan Telescopes, GMT
Lowell Observatory 2,210 m (7,250 ft) Flagstaff Arizona, United States 35°12′10″N 111°39′52″W / 35.20278°N 111.66444°W / 35.20278; -111.66444 1894 Optical telescope
Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory 2,200 m (7,200 ft) Cerro Tololo Atacama Desert, Chile 30°10′9″S 70°48′21″W / 30.16917°S 70.80583°W / -30.16917; -70.80583 1967 Optical telescope Victor M. Blanco Telescope
Calar Alto Observatory 2,168 m (7,113 ft) Calar Alto Almería, Spain 37°13′25″N 2°32′46″W / 37.22361°N 2.54611°W / 37.22361; -2.54611 1975 Optical telescope
Very Large Array 2,124 m (6,969 ft) Plains of San Agustin New Mexico, United States 34°04′43″N 107°37′06″W / 34.07861°N 107.61833°W / 34.07861; -107.61833 1975 Radio telescope
Kitt Peak National Observatory 2,096 m (6,877 ft) Kitt Peak Arizona, United States 31°57′30″N 111°35′48″W / 31.95833°N 111.59667°W / 31.95833; -111.59667 1960 Optical, solar, radio telescope Mayall, WIYN, McMath-Pierce, VLBA
Special Astrophysical Observatory
of the Russian Academy of Science
2,070 m (6,790 ft) Mount Pastukhov Caucasus Mountains, Russia 43°38′49″N 41°26′26″E / 43.64694°N 41.44056°E / 43.64694; 41.44056 1966 Optical telescope BTA-6
Yunnan Astronomical Observatory 2,014 m (6,608 ft) rural Kunming, Yunnan, China rural Kunming, Yunnan, China 25°02′00″N 102°47′00″E / 25.03333°N 102.78333°E / 25.03333; 102.78333 1972 Optical telescope, Radio, Solar, Infrared Lijiang 2.4m telescope, Fuxian Lake 1m solar tower, ynao 1m telescope, 10m radio telescope.
Mount Wilson Observatory 1,742 m (5,715 ft) Mount Wilson California, United States 34°13′26″N 118°03′42″W / 34.22389°N 118.06167°W / 34.22389; -118.06167 1908 Optical, solar Hale Telescope (60"), Hooker Telescope (100")
Palomar Observatory 1,712 m (5,617 ft) Palomar Mountain California, United States 33°21′21″N 116°51′50″W / 33.35583°N 116.86389°W / 33.35583; -116.86389 1936 Optical telescope Hale Telescope (200"), Samuel Oschin telescope

See also[edit]


Note: References for most elevations can be found in the linked main article for each observatory.

  1. ^ Krisciunas (1988), see Chapters 1-5.
  2. ^ Krisciunas (1988), see Chapter 6: Harvard, Lick, Yerkes, and the rise of astrophysics.
  3. ^ Brunier (2005), p.20-21.
  4. ^ Richalet, Jean-Paul (2001). "The Scientific Observatories on Mont Blanc". High Altitude Medicine & Biology. 2 (1): 57–68. doi:10.1089/152702901750067936. PMID 11252700. 
  5. ^ Krisciunas (1988), see Chapter 7: Mt Wilson and Palomar.
  6. ^ Zirker (2005), see Chapter 4: The Rise of the Great Centers.
  7. ^ Krisciunas (1988), see Chapter 8: The Present.
  8. ^ Krisciunas (1988), p. 141.
  9. ^ a b c Zanini, A.; Storini, M.; Saavedra, O. (2009). "Cosmic rays at High Mountain Observatories". Advances in Space Research. 44 (10): 1160–5. Bibcode:2009AdSpR..44.1160Z. doi:10.1016/j.asr.2008.10.039. 
  10. ^ a b c Yoshii, Yuzuru; et al. (11 August 2009). "The 1m telescope at the Atacama Observatory has Started Scientific Operation, detecting the Hydrogen Emission Line from the Galactic Center in the Infrared Light". Press Release. School of Science, the University of Tokyo. Retrieved 21 December 2009. 
  11. ^ Yao, Y.; et al. (2011). "The NAOC Ali Observatory, Tibet" (PDF). The 11th Asian-Pacific Regional IAU Meeting. 
  12. ^ Stone, Richard (7 September 2012). "World-Class Observatory Rising on 'Roof of the World'". Science. 337: 1156–7. doi:10.1126/science.337.6099.1156. PMID 22955808. ; full text also at
  13. ^ "Indian Astronomical Observatory Site". Retrieved 21 December 2009. 
  14. ^
  15. ^ "YBJ International Cosmic Ray Observatory (Chinese website, translated)". Retrieved 21 December 2009. 
  16. ^ "YBJ International Cosmic Ray Observatory (English website)". Retrieved 21 December 2009. 
  17. ^ "Mauna Kea Observatories, Summit Map". Retrieved 21 December 2009. 
  18. ^ "Barcroft Observatory, White Mountain Research Station". Retrieved 21 December 2009. 
  19. ^ "USGS Topographic Map, Mount Barcroft, CA". Retrieved 21 December 2009. 
  20. ^ "Topographic Map of VLBA Mauna Kea Site". Retrieved 21 December 2009. 
  21. ^ "USGS Topographic Map, Kilohana, HI". Retrieved 21 December 2009. 
  22. ^ "Receiver Lab Telescope". Retrieved 21 December 2009. 
  23. ^ Marrone; Blundell; Tong; Paine; Loudkov; Kawamura; Luhr; Barrientos (2005). "Observations in the 1.3 and 1.5 THz Atmospheric Windows with the Receiver Lab Telescope". arXiv:astro-ph/0505273Freely accessible [astro-ph]. 
  24. ^ "PLATO - Dome A robotic observatory". Retrieved 21 December 2009. 
  25. ^ "Concordia station, Dome C, Antarctica". 100 Hours of Astronomy. Retrieved 24 December 2009. 
  26. ^ "Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory". Retrieved 28 December 2009. 
  27. ^ "Topographic Map of La Silla Observatory". Retrieved 28 December 2009. 
  28. ^ "Topographic Map of Las Campanas Observatory". Retrieved 28 December 2009. 
  • Brunier, Serge; Lagrange, Anne-Marie (2005). Great Observatories of the World. Firefly Books. ISBN 1-55407-055-4. 
  • Krisciunas, Kevin (1988). Astronomical Centers of the World. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-30278-1. 
  • Zirker, Jack B. (2005). An Acre of Glass: A History and Forecast of the Telescope. The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-8234-6.