Observing the Observatories

My time in China has been nothing short of amazing and fascinating. Being able to visit so many historical sites such as the Forbidden City and the Presidential Palace was something I had only dreamed of. The highlight of the trip, however, was the invaluable opportunity to visit the space observatories of old and new in China.

The first observatory we visited was the Ancient Beijing Observatory (ABO). As the name implies, the observatory is no longer functional, but was built in the 15th century during the Ming Dynasty, and was further expanded during the Qing Dynasty. It underwent a major facelift when the Jesuits came to China in 1644, introducing many more new, accurate astronomical instruments. With a history of over 600 years, the ABO is one of the oldest observatories in the world. Instruments, which included the astronomical sextant and azimuth theodolite were stolen by the Eight-Nation Alliance during the later stages of the Qing dynasty, and were only returned near the end of World War I.

The second observatory we visited was the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory (SHAO). Functioning as both a museum and an actual observatory, its pride and joy is the 65m Sheshan Radio Telescope, otherwise known as tianma (天马), which has been operating since 2012. Fourth largest in the world and largest in Asia, the telescope scans the sky to observe radio wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum from space, obtaining information about cosmic objects such as black holes and quasars. Currently, the astronomers are studying pulsars, radiation emitted from black holes, in hopes of calculating the mass of black holes. The SHAO museum is also home to a 1.65m optical telescope, given to the Chinese by Jesuits. It was in operation until pollution and weather conditions in Shanghai made studying the sky with it untenable.

The Purple Mountain Observatory (PMO) in Nanjing was the final observatory we had the chance to visit. Established in 1934, it is known as the “cradle of modern astronomy in China”, an accolade it bears as the first modern astronomical institute in China, and subsequently originator of most sub disciplines of Chinese astronomy. Many original ancient tools, such as the gnomon and the armillary sphere, peppered its grounds. Of note, the observatory is home to more than a hundred asteroids, which we had a chance to study. PMO is heavily involved in the research of high-energy astrophysics, solar physics and space space exploration technology. At the end of this year, PMO plans to launch China’s first astronomical satellite to study the mysterious dark matter.

The three observatories truly live up to our Week 7 project title: The Ancient and Modern Chinese Universe. Across the three observatories tell a story of the Chinese advances of astronomy and cosmology; beginning with Beijing, we see the ancient Chinese methodologies and equipment, far advanced for their age, leading to many accurate observations about the sky. The Suzhou Star Chart, for instance, accurately maps the locations of the stars vis-a-vis the Chinese sky.

In contrast, Shanghai represents the modern frontier of astrophysics in China; the 65m radio telescope is one of China’s proudest achievements to date. Linked together with three other satellites in the country, China is able to make fascinating discoveries of the modern universe.

If Beijing is the ancient world and Shanghai the modern, Nanjing is, quite fittingly as the old capital of China, the synthesis of the two worlds. Home to many of the ancient equipment utilised by the Chinese, Nanjing is also the birthplace of many new advances in modern Chinese astrophysics, painting an inspiring picture of present astronomers drawing ideas from their predecessors.


“About Us—-Purple Mountain Observatory, CAS.” Purple Mountain Observatory, CAS. Accessed October 5, 2015. http://english.pmo.cas.cn/au/.
“History—-Shanghai Astronomical Observatory,Chinese Academy of Sciences.” History—-Shanghai Astronomical Observatory,Chinese Academy of Sciences. Accessed October 5, 2015. http://www.shao.ac.cn/eng/au/hy/.
“Royal Commonwealth Society : Sir Henry Norman Far East Collection, circa 1890.” Cambridge Digital Library. Accessed October 5, 2015. http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/PH-Y-00302-E/7.