12 Out-Of-This-World Observatories

Kitt Peak Observatory under a starry night
The discovery of methane ice on Pluto was made at Kitt Peak National Observatory.

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Despite the use of interstellar probes, Mars-roving robots, and human-led endeavors aboard the International Space Station, much of what we know about the universe has been discovered from the confines of Earth in facilities called observatories. From the Pic du Midi Observatory in France, astrologers were able to chart the surface of the moon for NASA’s successful Apollo program. Astonishingly, more than 60,000 stars were charted in the mid-18th century at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. This historic location is also the point from which longitude is measured, known as the Prime Meridian. Other observatories have incredible histories, like Einstein Tower in Germany—which was taken over by the Nazis and bombed by Ally forces during World War II. These astronomical observatories, each with their own fascinating histories and discoveries, have enriched human understanding of the universe and our place within it.

Here are 12 out-of-this-world observatories where stars have been charted, planets have been studied, and the dream of discovery lives on.

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Einstein Tower

Einstein Tower in surrounded by trees in Potsdam, Germany

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Completed in 1921, Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Germany was designed by architect Erich Mendelsohn to house a solar telescope conceived by the scientist Erwin Finlay-Freundlich. The observatory was built to help prove Albert Einstein’s recently proposed theory of relativity by observing what’s now known as redshift—a phenomenon wherein spectral lines shift within the gravitational field of the sun. Although it was bombed by Ally forces during World War II, Einstein Tower survived and is still used today in the study of solar physics.

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Fabra Observatory

Fabra Observatory overlooking the city of Barcelona, Spain

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The Fabra Observatory in Barcelona, Spain was built primarily as a means of discovering asteroids and comets. The famous facility still contains the Mailhat telescope (named after a town in France) it was outfitted with upon its completion in 1904. Designed by Catalan architect Josep Domènech i Estapà, the Art Nouveau building was built under the purview of the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts of Barcelona. In 1907, Josep Comas, the first director of the Fabra Observatory, discovered the existence of an atmosphere on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The observatory is still in use today.

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Griffith Observatory

Griffith Observatory at night with the Los Angeles skyline behind it

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Industrialist Griffith J. Griffith had a transformational moment when peering through a telescope in 1904. His vision was to share the experience of looking at the stars with the public, and he posthumously achieved that dream when the Griffith Observatory was opened in 1935. The observatory was designed and built to the exacting specifications of Mr. Griffith, who had sought the guidance of astrophysicists in the installation of exhibits, telescopes, and a planetarium. Today, the Griffith Observatory remains a popular tourist attraction and continues the request of its namesake that admission be free to all.

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Kitt Peak National Observatory

The collection of domes of Kitt Peak National Observatory on a cloudy day

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Near Tucson, Arizona, in the Quinlan Mountains of Tohono O'odham Nation, sits the massive scientific complex known as Kitt Peak National Observatory. Founded in 1958 and dedicated in 1960, the observatory is home to 18 optical telescopes and two radio telescopes. Among the many discoveries made at the Kitt Peak National Observatory was methane ice on the dwarf planet Pluto in 1976. Apart from scientific research and observation, the complex is committed to educational programs for the public through initiatives like the Windows on the Universe Center for Astronomy Outreach.

Kitt Peak is also the home of DESI (Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument), created to probe the mysteries of dark energy by assembling the largest ever 3D map of the universe. Learn more about DESI in the video below.

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Palomar Observatory

The white dome shape of Palomar Observatory against a blue sky

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Palomar Observatory in San Diego County, California was completed in 1948 and features three optical telescopes, including the 200-inch Hale Telescope. The observatory was the vision of famed astronomer George Ellery Hale, whose dream of a 200-inch telescope was realized there in January 1949. The instrument has been used to discover planets, comets, stars, and moons of Jupiter and Uranus. Palomar Observatory is still in active use and is open to the public for daily tours.

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Pic du Midi Observatory

Pic du Midi Observatory on the French Pyrenees mountians

Pascalou petit / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

First constructed in 1878, Pic du Midi Observatory is situated nearly 10,000 feet atop the rugged terrain of Pic du Midi in the French Pyrenees mountains. The observatory was the vision of the Société Ramond, a French community of thinkers invested in the study of the Pyrenees. After four years of construction, however, the group conceded the property to the French due to lack of funding. With sufficient resources, the Pic du Midi Observatory was outfitted with a variety of telescopes and other instruments throughout the years. One such instrument was the 42-inch telescope installed in 1963 that was used to help NASA chart the surface of the moon for the Apollo missions. Today, Pic du Midi Observatory continues its study of planets, moons, asteroids, and other interstellar bodies.

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Royal Observatory, Greenwich

Tourists gather outside of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich in England

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Founded in 1675 by King Charles II, the Royal Observatory, Greenwich was built primarily to study the stars in hopes of improving navigation accuracies and technologies for the British Empire. Among the impressive accomplishments achieved at the east London observatory include Astronomer Royal James Bradley’s charting of over 60,000 stars during the mid-18th century. The world’s Prime Meridian, by which longitude is measured, runs directly through a building on the premises and is marked today by a stainless steel strip embedded in the courtyard and a green laser projected through the air. Greenwich Mean Time, formally known as Universal Time, marks the beginning of the so-called Universal Day and is measured from the Royal Observatory.

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Quito Astronomical Observatory

The three towers of Quito Astronomical Observatory in Ecuador

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Founded in 1873, Quito Astronomical Observatory in Ecuador is among the oldest astronomical observatories in all of South America. The study of the Sun has always been the primary focus of scientists at the observatory due to Quito’s incredibly close proximity to the equator, which allows for uninterrupted solar research. Among the many historic 19th-century scientific instruments found at the Quito Astronomical Observatory is the 24cm equatorial telescope designed by Georg Merz in 1875.

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Sphinx Observatory

Sphinx Observatory on the steep slopes of the Swiss Alps.

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Located 11,716 feet high in the Alps of Valais, Switzerland, the Sphinx Observatory is one of the highest observatories in the world. Built in 1937, the research facility features several laboratories, a cosmic ray research pavilion, and, although no longer in use,  a 76cm telescope. Today, the Sphinx Observatory operates, in part, as a solar-measuring component in a long-term experiment conducted by the Institute of Astrophysics and Geophysics at the University of Liège, Belgium.

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Yerkes Observatory

Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin

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Opened in 1897, the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin was in operational use for over 100 years before closing in 2018 for preservation purposes. Often called “the birthplace of modern astrophysics,” the observatory was the realized dream of the astronomer George Ellery Hale and contains a number of significant scientific instruments, including the 40-inch refracting telescope that was the largest of its kind upon its dedication in 1897. Among Yerkes Observatory’s world-renowned visitors are Carl Sagan, Edwin Hubble, and Albert Einstein.

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The Round Tower

A ground-level view of the Round Tower in Copenhagen on a sunny day

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Copenhagen is home to the Round Tower, Europe's oldest functioning astronomical observatory. Completed in 1642, the cylindrical landmark is well known for the 686-foot equestrian staircase that wraps around the core of the building. This spiraling ramp made it simple for astronomers to haul heavy scientific equipment up to the rooftop observatory—with draft animals doing the heavy lifting. In 1716, Russian czar Peter the Great famously ascended the staircase on horseback. Aside from the public stargazing activities now hosted there, the Round Tower is also the site of concerts and art exhibitions.

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Parkes Observatory

The second largest radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere sits atop the circular Parkes Observatory on a cloudy day

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The Parkes Observatory near Parkes, Australia is a radio telescope facility equipped with a 210-foot dish telescope—the second largest instrument of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Fully operational in 1963, the observatory has been behind many important astronomical discoveries since its founding. Among the many achievements made at Parkes include the discovery of more than half of all known pulsars (magnetized rotating stars) in the universe. In association with Breakthrough Listen, Parkes Observatory has searched 1,000 stars in the Milky Way for evidence of extraterrestrial technologies.