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USNO - Our Command History

The United States Naval Observatory is an Echelon-IV shore activity under the command of the Superintendent, U.S. Naval Observatory and the Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command.

The idea for an American "national" observatory began with President John Quincy Adams.  On December 6, 1825, in his first annual message to Congress, Adams proposed a number of lofty goals for the Nation.  Among these were the establishment of a national university, a naval academy, and “Connected with the establishment of an [sic] university, or separate from it, might be undertaken the erection of an astronomical observatory, with provision for the support of an astronomer”.  He lamented that, while Europe had “… upward of 130 of these lighthouses of the skies, …throughout the whole American hemisphere there is not one.”  Congress never approved of his goals as President, but while serving in the House of Representatives after his presidency, he continued to fight for the establishment of an observatory.

Meanwhile, exactly five years later on December 6, 1830, Secretary of the Navy John Branch issued an order to Lieutenant Louis M. Goldsborogh to establish a depot for the Navy's navigational charts and instruments. Nautical charts were maintained, and astronomical observations were made to rate the chronometers distributed to Navy vessels.  Goldsborough was followed by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, who later gained fame by leading the U.S. Exploring Expedition to the Pacific Ocean and the Antarctic. Lieutenant James M. Gilliss relieved Wilkes in 1837. Gilliss consulted the prominent scientists in this country and abroad and initiated congressional action that led to an appropriation of $25,000 to build a permanent Depot in 1842.   In 1843 Gilliss purchased instruments and books in Europe, and personally supervised the construction of the new facility at 24th and E streets, NW, on a hill overlooking the Potomac River in Washington's "Foggy Bottom" district. The construction was completed by October 1844 but, to Gilliss' dismay, Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury was named the first Superintendent; Gilliss had yearned for the job himself.
The Early Years
Highly visible in 1844, with an array of astronomical instruments unparalleled in the country, the newly-named U.S. Naval Observatory began to build its worldwide reputation. Maury set to work cataloging all stars that could be seen with the Observatory's instruments, a nearly impossible task that, in the end, was never completed. Maury's tenure was characterized by an emphasis on oceanography, and in 1854 the facility was designated as the U.S. Naval Observatory and Hydrographical Office. Scientific research consisted primarily of determining fundamental celestial positions, motions, and astronomical constants. Systematic observations were made of the Sun, Moon, planets and bright stars.

In January 1846, Maury discovered the breaking up of Biela's Comet into two pieces. In February 1847, Sears Cook Walker found that the planet Neptune, which had been discovered the previous September, was actually a "star" observed by the French astronomer Jérôme LaLande in 1795. This discovery permitted a more accurate determination of Neptune's orbit. In 1854 James Ferguson, using the 9.6-inch refractor, became the first American to discover a minor planet, (31) Euphrosyne. Two more minor planets, (50) Virginia and (60) Echo, were discovered by Ferguson over the next 6 years. Astronomical observations were published under the name Naval Observatory at first, and later under the name U.S. Naval Observatory.

In 1845, at the request of the Secretary of the Navy, the Observatory installed a time ball atop the 9.6-inch telescope dome. The time ball was dropped every day (except Sunday) precisely at local mean solar noon, enabling the inhabitants of Washington to set their timepieces. Ships in the Potomac River could also check the rates of their chronometers before putting to sea. The Observatory's Time Service was initiated in 1865. A time signal was transmitted via telegraph lines to the Navy Department, and also activated the bells in all of the Washington fire stations at 0700, 1200, and 1800 every day. This service was later extended via Western Union telegraph lines to provide accurate time to railroads across the nation. The Observatory participated in a program of determining longitude by comparing local time with that telegraphed from a clock at another fixed observatory, and thus exchanged time signals with other observatories and with the Coast Survey field parties.

In April, 1861 Maury reluctantly resigned his Federal naval commission to join the Confederate forces, and Gilliss once again took over the Observatory. The Observatory was staggering under the war-induced workload of providing navigational instruments and charts to a Navy responding to President Lincoln's call for a blockade of the South. In August 1863, Lincoln sought a moment of solace at the Observatory looking at the Moon through the 9.6-inch telescope.

The post-Civil War years saw the Observatory rapidly becoming one of the world's leading astronomical observatories. Thousands of observations were now in print, thanks to Gilliss, and American astronomers could rely on the Naval Observatory rather than those in Europe for fundamental star positions. In 1866 the Hydrographic Office was separated from the Observatory and took up quarters in the "Octagon House" in Washington, DC. Seven years later the Observatory installed the largest refracting telescope in the world, the 26-inch "Great Equatorial", still in use today and now located just west of the present Observatory's main building. In 1874 and 1882, teams were dispatched around the world to record the rare transits of Venus across the solar disk. In 1876, the Naval Observatory helped the nation celebrate its Centennial, proudly displaying evidence of the Observatory's scientific achievements at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. In August, 1877, astronomer Asaph Hall discovered the two satellites of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, with the 26-inch telescope. Simon Newcomb, the Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac Office from 1877 to 1897, was one of the premier American scientists of the 19th century.

A New Era
After nearly fifty years at the site on the Potomac River, hampered by fog and deteriorating buildings, in 1893 the U.S. Naval Observatory moved to its present location on Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest Washington, D.C. At that time the site was well outside the city, and separated from it by the deep valley formed by Rock Creek. Five of the buildings (the main building, the 26-inch telescope dome, the Clock House, and the transit circle buildings) were designed by the renowned American architect Richard Morris Hunt. The Superintendent's residence, located to the north of the Observatory's main building, was also completed at this time. It was designed by local architect Leon Dessez.  In 1929 the Superintendent's residence became the home of the Chief of Naval Operations, and in 1974 Congress designated it as the Official Residence of the Vice President of the United States.

As an event that provided an opportunity to rethink old programs and to propose new ones, as well as in the provision of new facilities, the move to the new location was an important landmark in the history of the Observatory. Along with new programs such as the daily monitoring of solar activity with a photoheliograph (1899-1971), the old functions of timekeeping and meridian and equatorial observations were kept intact. The move also provided the occasion for the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office, founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1849 and relocated in Washington, D.C. in 1866, to become officially a part of the Naval Observatory.

The challenge was now to achieve greater and greater accuracy in all areas of its mission, a quest that characterized much of the research at the Observatory during the twentieth century. Greater accuracy required improved technology, and nowhere was this more evident than in the determination, maintenance, and dissemination of time. Beginning in 1934, the Observatory determined time with a photographic zenith tube (PZT), a specialized instrument that pointed straight upward toward the zenith and automatically photographed selected stars crossing the meridian at that point. This gave a measure of the Greenwich Mean Time (now called Universal Time), the "time of day" based on the rotation of the Earth. Improvements in clock technology, including the Shortt "Synchronome" free-pendulum clock and quartz crystal clocks, soon proved conclusively that the Earth's rotation was not uniform, and a new uniform time scale known as "Ephemeris Time" came into use in 1956.

Defined by the orbital motion of the Earth about the Sun, in practice Ephemeris Time was determined by observations of the Moon, first undertaken with the dual rate moon camera, invented by William Markowitz at the Naval Observatory in 1951. In 1984 the family of time scales known as dynamical time replaced ephemeris time as the time based on the motion of celestial bodies according to the theory of gravitation, now taking relativistic effects into account. In the meantime, the development of atomic clocks brought about the introduction of a much more accessible time - the atomic time scale based on the vibration (an energy level transition) of the cesium atom.

In 1958 the Naval Observatory and Britain's National Physical Laboratory published the results of joint experiments that defined the relation between atomic time and ephemeris time.  In 1967 the international definition of the second was adopted by the world's physicists based on these joint experiments. Since 1972 atomic time has been kept synchronized with universal time by the addition or subtraction of a "leap second" whenever necessary.

Time dissemination has also been continuously improved. In 1904 a naval radio station in Navesink, New Jersey transmitted the first radio time signals ever; they were derived from a U.S. Naval Observatory clock. This was the beginning of a system of radio time, constantly improved and increasingly automated through the century, that now spans the globe. The function of rating, repairing, and distributing chronometers and other nautical instruments, a major and especially critical effort during World War II , was transferred from the Observatory to the Optical Section of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1950.

The determination of the fundamental celestial coordinate system, against which the motions of all other celestial bodies must be measured, was carried out during the 20th century at the U.S. Naval Observatory by two transit circle telescopes, the nine-inch (operated from 1894 to 1945) and the six-inch, designed by William Harkness and mounted in 1899. The catalogues produced by these instruments were fundamental in the sense that in addition to selected stars, observations were also made of the Sun, Moon, planets, and asteroids. These solar system objects were used to determine the positions of the celestial equator and vernal equinox, which defined the orientation of the fundamental celestial coordinate system. The six-inch transit circle produced six fundamental star catalogues beginning in 1924. This instrument incorporated many changes in technology to improve its accuracy, from the method of reading its graduated circle, to a traveling-wire micrometer, digital readouts of the micrometer measures, and computerized data acquisition and telescope control. In 1956 a new seven-inch transit circle was installed to replace the nine-inch. During the late 1960s and early 1970s it was located in El Leoncito, Argentina, for a program of Southern hemisphere observations; after an intensive development program, it was moved to the South Island of New Zealand in 1984.

The quest for greater accuracy with the equatorial telescopes has been carried out by improvements to the 26-inch, as well as by the addition of new specialized telescopes. In 1935 a 40-inch (1-meter) Ritchey-Chretien aplanatic reflecting telescope, one of the first of its kind, was completed by George W. Ritchey, a pioneer in telescope design who spent four years at the Naval Observatory on this project. The Hubble Space Telescope is based on this optical design. This telescope was moved to the newly-established Flagstaff station in Arizona in 1955, and was joined in 1963 by a new 61-inch (1.55-meter) astrometric reflector, designed and constructed under the direction of Naval Observatory Scientific Director Dr. Kaj Strand.

Again, the 61-inch was a pioneering design: it remains the first, the biggest, and the most accurate of its kind ever built. Together, the 40-inch and the 61-inch determined the relative positions, brightness, colors, and spectral types of stars with electronic cameras, and by photography and photometry. The 61-inch, which has a focal length of 50 feet, has, since its inception, carried out the world's largest program of determining stellar parallaxes; that is, accurate geometrical determinations of distances to nearby stars. For the first 20 years of its existence it has concentrated on stars with magnitudes ranging from 12 to 18. For this program 35 to 40 photographic plates were taken of each star, and the plates were measured with an automatic measuring engine in Washington, the main parts of which were made of massive blocks of granite, and which determined star positions on photographs to a precision of better than one micron.

The 61-inch reflector, together with an eight-inch double astrograph and a 15-inch astrograph, were also involved in a program on the astrometry of solar system objects. It was with photographs taken with the 61-inch for this program that James W. Christy discovered Charon, the largest satellite of Pluto in 1978, 101 years after Asaph Hall discovered the moons of Mars. That discovery resulted in a precise determination of the mass of Pluto, and raised new speculations about the possibility of a planet beyond Pluto.  In 1980, using a prototype of the Hubble Space Telescope's camera array mounted on the 61-inch telescope, USNO astronomers Dan Pascu and P.K. Seidelmann discovered a new moon of Saturn, Calypso.

In the meantime, the 26-inch, the old classical refractor, was engaged throughout the century in a program to observe natural satellites and double stars; almost 30,000 visual measures of double stars were made in this program between 1961 and 1990. Since 1990 double stars have been observed with a technique known as "speckle interferometry". By taking very short exposures with a Charge-Coupled Device (CCD) camera, astronomers can actually use the blurring effect of Earth's atmosphere to their advantage to measure the separations and position angles of double star components. The technique is ideally suited to the nearly 150 year-old optics of the great telescope, and are relatively unaffected by the urban location of the Observatory. Several thousand stars are measured annually, and the database of such observations, added to the visual observations dating back over a century, provide for the most concise double star catalog in the world.

Throughout the century, the Nautical Almanac Office has fulfilled its essential function of predicting the positions of celestial bodies. Utilizing transit circle observations from the U.S. Naval Observatory and around the world, the Nautical Almanac Office improved the theories of the orbital motions of solar system objects. These theories were used to construct ephemerides for astronomers, navigators, and surveyors, printed for most of the century as The American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, but since 1981 as The Astronomical Almanac. For marine navigation there is a separate publication, The Nautical Almanac. For the use of air navigators during World War II the Nautical Almanac Office designed and developed the American Air Almanac, first issued in 1941, and still issued as The Air Almanac.  Since 1911 the Nautical Almanac Office has collaborated with His Majesty's Nautical Almanac Office in the UK in the production of these annual publications.  In 1968 the Office was tasked by NASA to create navigational charts for the Apollo lunar missions.  These charts flew on all of the missions that went to the Moon. 

Since the beginning of World War II the Nautical Almanac Office has been in the forefront of the development and utilization of computerized techniques in astronomy. This is necessary not only for the production of the Almanacs and for providing astronomical data of various types for locations worldwide, but also for a wide range of research in celestial mechanics carried out by staff of the Office.

The Observatory Today
The U.S. Naval Observatory continues to be the leading authority in the United States for astronomical and timing data required for such purposes as navigation at sea, on land, and in space, as well as for civil affairs and legal matters. Its current Mission Statement reads:

"USNO serves as DoD's authoritative source for the positions and motion of celestial bodies, motions of the Earth, and precise time."​

USNO provides tailored products, performs relevant research, develops leading edge technologies and instrumentation, and operates state of the art systems in support of the U.S. Navy, DoD, Federal Agencies, international partners, and the general public.

The U.S. Naval Observatory, via its Departments of Astronomical Applications, Celestial Reference Frames, Earth Orientation, and Precise Time, carries out its primary functions by making regular observations of the Sun, Moon, planets, selected stars, and other celestial bodies to determine their positions and motions; by deriving precise time interval (frequency), both atomic and astronomical, and managing the distribution of precise time by means of timed navigation and communication transmissions; and by deriving, publishing, and distributing the astronomical data required for accurate navigation, operational support, and fundamental positional astronomy. The U.S. Naval Observatory conducts the research necessary to improve both the accuracy and the methods of determining and providing astronomical and timing data.

In addition to its Washington, DC, headquarters, the U.S. Naval Observatory maintains several field activities. The Precise Time Department's Alternate Master Clock (AMC) detachment at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado serves as a backup to the Master Clock system in Washington, D.C. The Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station (NOFS) provides a dark sky site near Flagstaff, Arizona, where the 1.55-meter Kaj Aa. Strand Astrometric Telescope, a 1.3-meter infrared telescope, the 1-meter Ritchey-Chretien reflector, and the Ron Stone 8-inch automated transit circle telescope are located.  Construction is now underway at NOFS for a 1.8-meter telescope that will make complimentary observations with an identical telescope in Australia, and a 1-meter automated telescope is nearing completion at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in the Atacama Desert of Chile.

The transit circle telescopes have now completed their historic mission of determining the fundamental celestial coordinate system. In their place the Navy Precision Optical Interferometer (NPOI) has been constructed at Anderson Mesa near Flagstaff, Arizona. It is a new generation synthetic-aperture telescope that will precisely determine the positions of stars to accuracies 100 times better than conventional ground-based techniques, thus providing the necessary reference points for precise guidance and targeting systems, as well as for a variety of astronomical purposes. It consists of two arrays of mirrors that gather starlight, which is then combined in such a way that the interference patterns of the light waves yield valuable scientific information. The first array, using four fixed mirrors arranged in a Y-shape along 20-meter arms, produces astrometric data, while the second array, using six mirrors movable along the arms of a 250-meter Y-shaped track, is used for imaging objects. The astrometric array and the inner part of the imaging array were completed 1996. By 1998 the imaging array was extended to its full size.

Highly accurate Earth orientation (rotation rate and polar motion) determinations are now made using radio telescopes that track quasars and active galactic nuclei, powerful sources of radio energy some five to fifteen billion light-years distant. To accomplish this, the Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) system is used. The VLBI system regularly uses USNO's dedicated radio telescope at Kokee Park, Kauai, Hawai'i, as well as sites in Japan, Chile, Canada, Germany, and other locations. The VLBI correlator needed to analyze these observations is located at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. The extragalactic reference frame produced by these observations is now the most accurate celestial coordinate system. Future DoD needs for USNO Earth Orientation information include a GPS requirement for long-range predictions of the Earth's rotation with an error of less than one meter.

By a Department of Defense directive, the U.S. Naval Observatory is charged with maintaining the DoD reference standard for Precise Time and Time Interval (PTTI). The Superintendent is designated as the DoD PTTI Manager. The U.S. Naval Observatory has developed the world's most accurate atomic clock system, accurate to better than a billionth of a second per day. Increasingly accurate and reliable time information is required in many aspects of military operations. Modern navigation systems depend on the availability and synchronization of highly accurate clocks. USNO is the exclusive provider of the reference time-scale for the Department of Defense satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS). In the communications and the intelligence fields, time synchronized activities are essential. The U.S. Naval Observatory Master Clock is the time and frequency standard for all of these systems. Thus, that clock system must be at least one step ahead of the demands made on its accuracy, and developments planned for the years ahead must be anticipated and supported.

The Master Clock system incorporates dozens of cesium-beam frequency standards, hydrogen masers, and USNO's proprietary rubidium fountain clocks, designed and built by our in-house clock development team. The fountain clocks represent the most advanced clock technology available to date, with day-to-day variations measured at the femtosecond (10-15 second) level. In the past highly accurate portable atomic clocks have been transported aboard aircraft in order to synchronize the time at naval bases and other Department of Defense facilities around the world with the Master Clock. Accurate time synchronization with the Master Clock is now carried out through two way satellite time transfer, or through the use of atomic clocks on GPS satellites, which provide the primary means of time synchronization and worldwide time distribution.

In the production of the Astronomical, Air, and Nautical Almanacs, the Observatory must accurately predict the positions of stars and planets for decades into the future. In the case of the planets, this prediction requires a very precise knowledge of their orbits, and involves a research effort of formidable magnitude, requiring some of the most accurate mathematical calculations made in any field of science. The planets in turn, through their gravitational force, have an influence on the motion of the Earth, and therefore precise knowledge of planetary masses and positions is essential to accurately predict the future positions of the Earth in space, its motion, and orientation. The Astronomical Applications Department, which undertakes this work, also distributes astronomical data by computer. In the past this led to the development of the Almanac for Computers and the Floppy Almanac, both of which have now been superseded by the Multi-year Interactive Computer Almanac (MICA), a 250-year computer-based almanac available for Windows-based operating systems. A computerized celestial navigation package, known as STELLA (System to Evaluate Latitude and Longitude Astrometrically), is available to DoD clients. It is important to remember that in the event of war, celestial navigation cannot be jammed.

The increasing demands of the Navy and other components of the Department of Defense for more accurate astronomical and timing data require a continuing, intense effort by the U.S. Naval Observatory in order to adequately carry out its unique mission. The U.S. Naval Observatory, the realization of John Quincy Adams' 1825 vision of an American "Lighthouse of the Sky", remains today at the leading edge of technology for astrometric and timing data, and is an institution of which the U.S. Navy is justifiably proud.


Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command | 1100 Balch Blvd. | Stennis Space Center, Mississippi 39529

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