Skip to main content

The Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts is home to more than 600 astronomers, engineers and support staff who together make up one of the largest organizations dedicated to the study of the Universe in the world. The Cambridge facilities, spanning four buildings, include the John G. Wolbach Library; the Millimeter Wave Telescope (MWT); laboratories for atomic and molecular experiments; computing centers, and engineering facilities.

The CfA | Harvard & Smithsonian was created in 1973 to combine the Harvard College Observatory (HCO) and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) under a single umbrella and director. Since then, the headquarters has grown beyond its original building to fill three additional sites in Cambridge, to house the scientists, engineers, and other staff supporting the study of the Universe and its contents.

The domes for the 15-inch Great Refractor Telescope and the 1.2-meter-diameter Millimeter Wave Telescope are the most prominent features of the roof of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Credit: CfA
  • CfA operates the Chandra X-ray Observatory, a NASA Great Observatory, and built its High-Resolution Camera. The world's premier X-ray observatory launched in 1999, Chandra is in a 64-hour Earth orbit making high-resolution observations of the hottest and most violent regions of the Universe. The Chandra X-ray Center serves as both operations and science center for the satellite, including the annual proposal cycle, planning for and observing celestial sources, processing, distributing and archiving the data, and providing analysis software and support to scientists.

  • The John G. Wolbach Library is a centralized repository of books, digital texts, and other astronomical resources, containing the joint collections of the Harvard College Observatory (HCO) Library and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) Library.

  • The Astrophysics Data System (ADS) is a Digital Library portal for researchers in Astronomy and Physics, operated by SAO under a NASA grant. Launched in 1993, the ADS maintains three bibliographic databases containing more than 12.6 million records covering publications in Astronomy and Astrophysics, Physics, and the arXiv e-prints. In addition to maintaining its bibliographic corpus, the ADS tracks citations and usage of its records to provide advanced discovery and evaluation capabilities. A pioneer in the field of data curation and integration in astrophysics, the ADS brought science literature online and made research much more readily accessible to the broader scientific community while paving the way for new methods of data maintenance and active storage, continuing its legacy as a foundation of research for scientists around the world.

  • The Astronomical Photographic Plate Collection is the largest and most comprehensive collection of astronomical glass plates in the world. Over 500,000 glass photographic plates were taken between 1885 and 1993 using telescopes in both the northern and southern hemispheres. The collection combines to create an impressive catalog of the night sky, including interesting astronomical objects, such as galaxies, clusters, and nebulae. Today, the Digitizing a Sky Century at Harvard or (DASCH) project is working to digitize this collection to produce full photometry results for the entire sky.

  • Central Engineering (CE) is the facility where most of the scientific instruments are developed for research at CfA. CE staff develop, test, and implement the technology needed for telescopes, spacecraft, and other astronomical work. Their work includes the The GMT-Consortium Large Earth Finder (G-CLEF), a fiber-fed, optical echelle spectrograph selected as the first light instrument for the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT). G-CLEF technology allows for the detection and characterization of low-mass exoplanets and has a high sensitivity permitting observations of high-redshift phenomena. In particular, G-CLEF will analyze exoplanet atmospheres for oxygen, a strong indicator for the presence of life.

  • While most of the CfA’s research telescopes are located at other facilities around the world, the 1.2-meter-diameter Millimeter Wave Telescope is physically located on the Headquarters roof. This instrument was originally built at Columbia University in New York, but was moved to Cambridge in 1986. CfA astronomers use the MWT and its twin in Chile to study the distribution of molecular clouds in the galaxy, which among other things lead to the discovery of previously unknown spiral arms in the Milky Way.

  • In February 2010, NASA launched an advanced suite of solar telescopes into orbit on the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), operated from CfA headquarters in Cambridge. The project is designed to better understand the physics of solar variations that influence life and society through research focused on Sun variation and its impact on global change and space weather. The Atmospheric Imaging Assembly on board consists of four telescopes, providing the unique ability to observe across the entire temperature, spatial and temporal ranges of solar activity in ultra-high definition. The resulting data is then studied on “solar walls” designed to provide viewing in full resolution.

  • The 15-inch telescope known as The Great Refractor was installed at Cambridge in 1847. For 20 years it was the largest telescope in the United States, the most significant American astronomical instrument and equal to the finest in the world. It formed the nucleus for the development of the Harvard College Observatory. While not in regular use for the past 50 years outside of special research projects, the Great Refractor still stands as an outstanding example of 19th century scientific, engineering and architectural achievements.