Monday, February 25, 2008

Astronomical Observatories on Google Maps

A short while ago I've started reading an interesting book about early astronomical tests of the theory of relativity, Einstein's Jury by Jeffrey Crelinsten. I don't want to say more about the book right now - just that I became a bit confused with all the names of US astronomers and observatories mentioned in the text. I thought it may be helpful to put them on a map.

There are web sites and wikipedia entries about all the observatories mentioend, so I decided to play around a bit with Google Maps. There is an "application programming interface", Google Maps API, which can be used to embed customised google maps in web pages, and to add flags and comments to the map. It's actually not so diffcult to use: I registered to get my "API Key", looked at same of the examples and demos (and in the source file of this nice interactive map I had come across by chance a while ago), and after some tinkering, I ended up with this result:

A map of some historical astronomical observatories in the US, ordered from East to West:

I have used the example icon-custom.html from the Google Maps API Examples page. Since the Google Maps API involves JavaScript, which can not be used with the blogger software, I have stored the HTML page with the map and the list of observatories on a separate web server (in case you do not see anything, the server is down, as it happens from time to time), and then used the iframe tag to embedded the page into the blog post.

This API is a fascinating gadget! There are probably hundred times more applications than I can think of right now.

The only thing what still is missing now is a time line ;-)


  1. Add Mauna Kea observatory to your collection:,+hi&ie=UTF8&ll=19.758626,-155.456285&spn=0.008714,0.011061&t=h&z=17

  2. Sorry, blogger truncated the url.

    The observatory coordinates are

  3. Hi punk,

    thanks for the coordinates! So, here is the link (pointing at Gemini North, actually - you can compare with this nice summit map)

    Mauna Kea wasn't mentioned in the book, and Hawaii is too far off, it doesn't fit on the map. So I decided to leave it out ;-).

    Actually, Palomar and McDonald weren't mentioned either, though - I've added Palomar because it fascinated me when I read about it as the largest telescope in the world when I was a little boy, and McDonald to "fill" the central part of the map...

    That's a good starting point for another map with modern observatories from all over the world.. maybe next time!

    Best, Stefan

  4. Just to keep adding, here's Apache Point:,-105.819985&spn=0.003184,0.005021&t=h&z=18

    (32.780153,-105.819985 if the link doesn't go through)

    ((and note the roll-back shed on the SDSS telescope))

  5. Stefan,

    You can also create a map on google maps using the interactive my maps tab you can just place the marks. You can make it public so anyone can search and find it and you can just just post a link instead of embedding it. I don't have time to do this, but it would be really cool.

  6. Hi Stefan,

    I can see you’re a pretty proficient Googlerer. I wonder what Google’s next tool will be. How about something along the same lines yet extended, like Google Universe? That would entail picking a point in the sky and zooming in. Perhaps with all the money they have they could purchase the Hubble and save it from being lost. Can you imagine Google’s Hubble? I’m more then half serious about this since it looks like Hubble could be the last space telescope to observe in the visual spectra. I realize one’s like Chandra are more data rich: however I find Hubble’s are by far the most beautiful (yes I know many are enhanced).

    I also have to report that you have sold a book with this post. After clicking the link to “Einstein’s Jury” and reading the first eight pages they make available, I’m hooked. I will just have to go out and get it. Now you realize that’s two including Bee’s “Ingenuity Gap” being the other. If this keeps up I’ll have to take a shopping cart into Chapters when I show up:-)



  7. Hi Stefan-

    A couple tips for you:
    1) You could also store your data in Google spreadsheets (and let others add to it). The following wizard would auto generate the map code for you:

    2) We have G_SKY_MAP_TYPES in the API now, if you actually want to mash up the sky. :)


  8. Stefan, as for the timeline, I think you can do something with the TimeSlider to take care of that, but then, it will be restricted to only Google Earth.

  9. Check out timemap for a timeline:

  10. Hi Pamela,

    thanks for the pointer at the "timemap" - that's exactly what I had in mind! My idea was to connect astronomers and important measurements and discoveries to the different observatories - this Renaissance example seems just to do this!

    Dear all -

    there is much to check out with google appliations.. thanks for the pointers! If ever I do not know what to do with my time...

    BTW, as we can see right now, when the server is down, we are informed about this by a very prominent error message ;-)

    Sorry about this - I hope service will be back to normal soon...

    Best, Stefan

  11. Hi Colin,

    thanks for linking Apache Point!

    and note the roll-back shed on the SDSS telescope

    SDSS, that's the APO Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope, I guess? Which one is that on the photo? Is it this building? Interesting - is that really the mirror one can spot there in the centre of the building? Why is the telescope exposed at plain daylight?

    It's a bit of a pity that all these modern telescopes don't need beautiful domes anymore, but that simple box-like shelters do the job ;-)...

    Best, Stefan

  12. The timeline API is perfect for something that I have been thinking for what should be done for Etna volcano eruptions. I have a lovely 2006 map from the Etna mountain guides that mark the locations of the lava flows from different eruptions over the years. I think that those locations should be in Google Maps! I'll pass this information along to people who might have more time than me to implement this. ;-)


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