October 2, 2014

The Oldest Observatory in South America.

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An 18th century observatory in the heart of Quito, Ecuador! (All photos by author).

 

An undiscovered astronomical gem sits in the downtown heart of Quito, Ecuador. Amid the high altitude urban bustle stands the Quito Observatory, a three turreted victorian style complex in triangular La Alameda park. Built in 1875, this observatory now serves as a recently reopened museum and weather station, and is  still occassionally utilized for public outreach on clear evenings. Sitting less than a degree south of the equator and at +9,000 feet altitude, the observatory has a nearly unobstructed view of both hemispheres. Modern urban light pollution has ended the days of the Quito Observatory as an astronomical research resource, but a tour of the equipment housed within harkens back to days of yore, when gentlemen astronomers conducted observations with stopwatch in one hand, pipe in the other.

 

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The old transit instrument on display used for precise measurement observations.

 

First a little history.

 

The country of Ecuador was the site of the first French Geodesic Mission, which ran from 1736 to 1744 and measured a precise arc of the Earth’s meridian. It was perhaps from these early surveys that a site for a world class observatory in Quito, which lies just arc minutes south of the equator, was born. The observatory itself was the brainchild of then President Gabriel Garcia Moreno and visiting German scientist Father Juan Bautista Menten, who modeled the floor plan after Bonn Observatory in Germany.

 

The Quito Observatory was built by Menten for the purpose of conducting transit surveys of southern hemisphere objects as well as gauging precise latitude measurements. This legacy is still evident today in the 180 degree transit slit cut into one of the out-rigger wings. The observatory also served as an overall geophysical research center; seismographic and weather instruments are on display along side of astronomical gear of yore.

 

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But the center piece is the Merz brass refractor housed in the main dome. With a 7 1/2″ objective and a German Equtorial mount, she’s a real beauty! After ascending an elegant spiral staircase, you can stroll right up to her and wonder about unattended. You can almost still hear the voices, calmly calling out measurements in the cool, crisp high altitude air, or commands to rotate the dome this way or that. Some of the mount has been upgraded to meet the standards of the electronic age, but the dome is still rotated by pure elbow grease. Be sure to catch the giant crankshaft!

 

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Rotation of the turret the old fashioned way; a close-up of the crank-shaft.

 

The turrets themselves are an interesting and unique piece of architecture. Both are aluminum sided, rotating shed-like turrets that are perhaps one-of a kind in design. Don’t miss the basement, as much of the anchorings and pedestal are still intact among the displays. This leads one to wonder; was the Merz refractor currently housed the original main instrument? Our guess is that it originally occupied the outrigger dome, with a larger instrument doing duty in the primary turret. Any astro- historians out there in cyber land that can shed some light on this?

 

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The 7 1/2″ Merz refractor currently installed.

 

Needless to say, a trip to Quito Observatory is fascinating, if a bit baffling for those (such as myself) whose Spanglish begins and ends with “Cerveca…” multi language information was a bit wanting, and much was left up to what our astronomical knowledge could interpret. Again, we’d love (and give full credit to) any genuine insight anyone has as to the history of this elegant building. If you go, the Quito Observatory is a short 15-20 minute stroll from the Plaza Grande in the Old Town of Ecuador. We found the park to be a bit dodgy even at midday, but the observatory has security and we had no problems. The observatory is open weekly from Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM and the tour is self guided. Word has it that the observatory is open for public viewing on clear nights; call ahead at 2570765/2583451 to see if this is the case. Owing to typical Ecuadorian weather, clouds and fog tend to settle over the Quito valley on most nights; your best shot at clear skies would be from June to August, during the dry season.

 

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A close-up of the 180 degree transit aperture set into one wing of the building.

 

Do check out the Quito observatory if you, like us, have a passion for grand old scopes, like old world architecture, or are just looking for something thats plain off-beat. Admission is free, and they could definitely the PR (and a website!) We here at Astroguyz were so taken with this structure that we plan to build a scale structure of this observatory in our backyard someday… anyone got blue prints?

 

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What astro-history transpired within these turrets?

 

Editorial Note: Visit our sister site, Pictures of Travel Places for further images of Quito, including this Quito Observatory image, and this picture of an antique brass telescope.

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