Early civilizations, such as those of Babylon, China, and Egypt, recognized the regular and periodic nature of heavenly motions and established primitive observatories to maintain astronomical records. The main purposes of these early observatories were to regulate the calendar and predict the changes of season. Because it was believed that unusual occurrences, such as comets and eclipses, foretold future events on earth, the early observatories also served a religious function, and most of the ancient astronomers were priests. Later observatories were established to compile accurate star charts and an annual ephemeris that would be of use to navigators in determining longitude at sea. For some 600 years, beginning in the 13th cent., Roman Catholic churches included solar observatories to measure the movements of the sun and so determine the correct date for Easter.
The instruments in use before the invention of the telescope include the sextant, quadrant, astrolabe, and armillary sphere. These are all calibrated sighting devices for determining the angular positions of stars and planets. The armillary sphere was the most sophisticated of these instruments. It was composed of a number of rings corresponding to great circles on the celestial sphere and was used to determine both the right ascension and the declination of a star. The last great observatory of the pretelescopic era was built by Tycho Brahe at Uranienborg, on the island of Ven, Denmark.
The invention of the telescope in the early 17th cent. revolutionized observational astronomy in two ways. First, the positions and motions of celestial bodies could be measured much more accurately with telescopes than with the earlier instruments. Such data provided a source of precise time signals. Second, the telescope could be used to analyze the physical nature of celestial bodies themselves. Until the 19th cent., telescopic images were inspected visually by highly trained observers who made drawings of what they saw. The development of dry-plate photography, which permitted long exposure times, however, offered a much more sensitive method of recording images. In the late 20th cent., electronic digital detectors utilizing charge-coupled devices (CCDs) superseded the use of film; a CCD can detect the arrival of a single photon of light. A recent development is the extension of astronomical observations to wavelengths outside the visible spectrum. Most important has been the development of radio astronomy, the study of radio waves emitted by celestial bodies.
Because the atmosphere interferes with astronomical observations from the ground, the ideal location for an observatory is beyond the earth's atmosphere. Since the late 20th cent., there has been an increasing emphasis on space-based observatories (see observatory, orbiting). Several artificial satellites have been equipped with telescopes for infrared, visible, ultraviolet, and X-ray observations. The International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) satellite, launched in 1978, is an 18-in. (0.45-meter) space telescope for ultraviolet studies. Launched in 1983, the Infrared Astronomy Satellite (IRAS) discovered some 246,000 infrared sources, as well as several stars around which planetary systems appear to be forming. Skylab was a manned orbiting space observatory (see space exploration). The largest space-based observatory is the Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990. Other observatories include the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory, launched in 1991, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, launched in 1999. ROSAT [ RO entgen SAT ellite], a joint German-U.S.-British project launched in 1990, studies both X-ray and ultraviolet wavelengths never before imaged from space. It has detected a new class of bright stars that shine only in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum. The Cosmic Background Explorer (1989–93) studied microwave background radiation that no star or other known object could emit—it is believed to have come from the creation of the universe (see cosmology).
The computer age has also impacted observatories in several ways. Instead of being cast in one piece, reflecting telescope mirrors can be constructed of numerous small segments that move under computer control to focus the light and create an image equivalent to that of a much larger telescope. This has made it economically possible for observatories to reach further and further into the cosmos. Computers have also made it easier to construct and retrieve information from archival data bases. Computer networks are under construction that will make it possible for these archival databases to be made available to other observatories so as to create a virtual observatory, with gains in productivity and cost-effectiveness for the observatories that participate in it.