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U.S. Naval Observatory-seal.gif

The United States Naval Observatory (USNO) is one of the oldest scientific agencies in the United States, with a primary mission [1] to produce Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) [2] for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Department of Defense. Located in Northwest Washington, D.C., it is one of the few astronomical observatories located in an urban area; at the time of its construction, it was far from the light pollution generated by the (then-smaller) city center. Today, the observatory's primary observational work is done at the U.S. Navy's higher elevation, United States Naval Observatory, Flagstaff Station (NOFS) near Flagstaff, Arizona. USNO also has an "Alternate Master Clock" [3] site in Colorado Springs, CO, which with the "Master Clock" [4], provides precise time to the GPS satellite constellation, run by the U.S. Air Force; and it performs radio VLBI-based positions of quasars with numerous global collaborators, in order to produce Earth Orientation parameters. Aside from its scientific misson, since 1974, the Observatory is the official residence of the Vice-President of the United States.



Aerial view of the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Established by the order of the Secretary of the Navy John Branch on 6 December 1830 as the Depot of Charts and Instruments[5], the Observatory rose from humble beginnings. Placed under the command of Lieutenant Louis M. Goldsborough, with an annual budget of $330, its primary function was the restoration, repair, and rating of navigational instruments. It was made into a national observatory in 1842 via a federal law and a Congressional appropriation of $25,000. Lieutenant James Melville Gilliss was put in charge of the project, which was completed in 1844.

The observatory's primary mission was to care for the United States Navy's marine chronometers, charts, and other navigational equipment. It calibrated ships' chronometers by timing the transit of stars across the meridian. Initially located downtown in Foggy Bottom (near the Lincoln Memorial), the observatory was moved to its present location in 1893, atop Observatory Hill overlooking Massachusetts Avenue, amidst perfectly circular grounds.

The first superintendent was Navy Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury. Maury had the world's first vulcanized time ball, created to his specifications by Charles Goodyear for the U.S. Observatory. It was the first time ball in the United States, being placed into service in 1845, and the 12th in the world. Maury kept accurate time by the stars and planets. The time ball was dropped every day except Sunday precisely at the astronomically defined moment of Mean Solar Noon, enabling all ships and civilians to know the exact time. By the end of the American Civil War, the Observatory's clocks were linked via telegraph to ring the alarm bells in all of the Washington, D.C. firehouses three times a day, and by the early 1870s the Observatory's daily noon time signal was being distributed nationwide via the Western Union Telegraph Company. Time was also "sold" to the railroads and was used in conjunction with railroad chronometers to schedule American rail transport. Early in the 20th century, the Arlington Time Signal broadcast this service to wireless receivers.

The names "National Observatory" and "Naval Observatory" were both used for 10 years, until a ruling was passed to use only the term "Naval Observatory".[6]

President John Quincy Adams, who in 1825 signed the bill for the creation of a national observatory just before leaving presidential office, had intended for it to be called the National Observatory. He spent many nights at the observatory with Maury, watching and charting the stars, which had always been one of Adams' avocations.

In November 1913, the Paris Observatory, using the Eiffel Tower as an antenna, exchanged sustained wireless (radio) signals with the United States Naval Observatory, using an antenna in Arlington, Virginia to determine the exact difference of longitude between the two institutions.[7]

Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station in Operation.

In 1934, the last large telescope to be installed at USNO saw "first light". This 40-inch aperture instrument [8] was also the second (and final) telescope made by famed optician, George Ritchey. The Ritchey-Chrétien telescope design has since become the defacto optical design for nearly all major telescopes, including the famed Keck telescopes and the spaceborne Hubble Telescope. Unfortunately, light pollution forced USNO to think of other more viable locations to continue work, and so began a search. The final dark sky site chosen was Flagstaff, Arizona, and so the 40-inch telescope was moved to that location, beginning operations at the new Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station (NOFS) in 1955.[9]. Within a decade, the Navy's largest telescope, the 61-inch "Kaj Strand Astrometric Reflector" was built, seeing light at NOFS in 1964.[10]

The modern United States Naval Observatory continues to be a major authority in the areas of time-keeping and celestial observation. In collaboration with many national and international scientific establishments, it determines the timing and astronomical data required for accurate navigation, astrometry, and fundamental astronomy and calculation methods -- and distributes this information (such as astronomical catalogs [11]) in the Astronomical Almanac, the Nautical Almanac, and online [12].

Number One Observatory Circle, official home of the Vice President of the United States

Perhaps it is best known to the general public for its highly accurate ensemble of atomic clocks and its year 2000 Timeball replacement. The site also houses the largest astronomy library in the United States (and the largest astrophysical periodicals collection in the world).[13] The library includes a large collection of rare, often famous, physics and astronomy books from across the past millennium.

USNO continues to maintain its dark-sky observatory, NOFS, near Flagstaff, Arizona, which also now oversees the Navy Prototype Optical Interferometer [14]. NOFS opens to the public annually in the autumn one weekend [15]. The Alternate Master Clock, mentioned above, also continues to operate at Schriever AFB in Colorado.

Official Residence of the Vice President of the United States

Since 1974, and separated from auspices of the Naval Observatory, Number One Observatory Circle, a house situated in the grounds of the observatory (formerly the residence of its superintendent, and later the home of the Chief of Naval Operations), has been the official residence of the Vice President of the United States.

According to a May 15, 2009 blog posting by Newsweek's Eleanor Clift,[16] Vice President Joe Biden recently revealed the existence of what Clift described as a bunker-like room in the residence. The bunker is believed to be the secure, undisclosed location former Vice President Dick Cheney remained under protection in secret after the 9/11 attacks. According to Clift's report:

"Biden said a young naval officer giving him a tour of the residence showed him the hideaway, which is behind a massive steel door secured by an elaborate lock with a narrow connecting hallway lined with shelves filled with communications equipment."

Biden's press office subsequently issued a statement denying the bunker report, suggesting that Biden had instead been describing "an upstairs workspace".[17]

Time service

Atomic clock ensemble at the U.S. Naval Observatory

The U.S. Naval Observatory's time service can be accessed by telephone or via the Internet:

  • phone numbers
    • 719-567-6742 (Colorado Springs)
    • 202-762-1069
    • 202-762-1401 (Washington, D.C.)
  • Internet
    • USNO operates several NTP servers for time synchronization over the Internet[18]

The voice of Fred Covington (1928–1993) has been announcing the USNO time since 1978.[19]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ Matchette, R. B.; et al. (1995). Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States.. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration.  
  6. ^ Matthew Fontaine Maury: Scientist of the Sea. Author: Frances Leigh Williams; Publisher: Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick (1963) 724 pages. CITE: Chapter VIII. Scientific Opportunity at Last p.164. "These different names for the Observatory and the term 'Hydrographic Office' were used interchangeably until December, 1854, when the Secretary of the Navy officially ruled that the proper designation was 'The United States Naval Observatory and Hydrographical office.'"
  7. ^ "Paris Time By Wireless," New York Times, November 22, 1913, pg 1.
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^ "Tour and Visiting Information for USNO Flagstaff Station". Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command. 2009-05-17. Retrieved 2009-05-17.  
  16. ^
  17. ^ "Biden Reveals Location of Secret VP Bunker". FOX News. 2009-05-17. Retrieved 2009-05-17.  
  18. ^
  19. ^ "Biography for Fred Covington". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2008-06-30.  


  • Sky and Ocean Joined – The U.S. Naval Observatory 1830-2000 by Steven J. Dick (2003) ISBN 0-521-81599-1

External links

Coordinates: 38°55′17″N 77°04′01″W / 38.921473°N 77.066946°W / 38.921473; -77.066946


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