January 17, 2022
National Observatory: discover one of the oldest institutions in Brazil

National Observatory: discover one of the oldest institutions in Brazil

The National Observatory, located in Rio de Janeiro, was created to enable practice using astronomical and geodetic instruments, geographical studies of the Brazilian territory and navigation. Founded in 1827, the observatory is considered one of the oldest scientific institutions in Brazil and has more than 190 years of history, research, and services to society in the country.

The mission of the National Observatory – or just “ON”, if you prefer – focuses on research, development and innovation in three main areas: astronomy, geophysics, and time and frequency measurement, also including the training of researchers and the training of professionals. In addition to a long path marked by groundbreaking achievements, ON foresees several partnerships.

Cooperation has been carried out in the academic field, for example, with Brazilian universities and research units of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCTI). With such a long history, the history of the National Observatory is closely connected with the history of Brazil, and in order to understand this, we need to go back a few centuries – more specifically, to 1730. And Canaltech I spoke with ON employees to find out details about their history, research, and contributions to society.

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A Brief History of the National Observatory

According to Seraphim Leite, priest and historian, it was in that year that the Jesuits erected an observatory in Morro do Castelo, located in Rio de Janeiro. There, too, in 1780, Portuguese astronomers established an observatory to make observations of astronomy, meteorology, and geomagnetism.

The headquarters of the National Observatory was built at the beginning of the 20th century (Photo: Reproduction/ON Archive/MAST Group)

Well, in 1808 the Portuguese royal family arrived on the Brazilian lands, however, the need to learn more about the geography of the country, the demarcation of borders and the provision of safe information for navigation grew. “The captains needed to know the magnetic declination, as well as the mean time and longitude, in order to adjust their chronometers, in order to safely make the return trip or continue around the world,” he says. Henrique Morize, astronomer and former director of ON.

This information can be obtained through rough calculations, but of course the ideal is to obtain it with professionals using tools in the observatory. Then, on October 15, 1827, Emperor Pedro I issued a decree establishing the National Observatory. At that time, the institution was under the direction of Pedro de Alcantara Bellegarde, Professor of Mathematics, and at that time, the institution was called the “Astronomical Observatory” and was associated with the Ministry of the Empire.

Only in 1845 was the observatory reorganized, with Soulier de Sauv, of Escola Militar, as director. As early as 1871, Emmanuel Leyes, a friend of Dr. Pedro II, director of the observatory. The institution was no longer part of the military administration, and the Liais directed work toward scientific research and service provision in meteorology, geophysics, and time measurement and determination of time. The Liais was succeeded by Belgian Louis Crools, a military engineer and astronomer.

As early as 1908, it was Morris’ turn to take on the position. Fight for ON’s new facilities, with the best equipment and qualified professionals – in 1922, ON was moved from Castelo Hill (now Esplanada do Castelo) to São Januário Hill, in São Cristóvão, where it continues to this day. There is also Luneta 46, the largest refracting telescope in Brazil.

Since 1999, ON has been under the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCTI), being a pioneer in conducting astronomical research and geophysical surveys in the Brazilian territory.

Some features of the National Observatory

As a research institute associated with MCTI, the National Observatory operates in astronomy, geophysics and metrology in time and frequency, conducting research and innovative technological developments in these areas that have gained international recognition. Such contributions began a long time ago – for example, in 1882, three large expeditions were organized by ON to observe the transit of Venus.

The National Observatory led Brazil’s participation in observing the passage of Venus over the solar disk. The image shows a transit of Venus that occurred in 2012 (Photo: Reproduction / Manuel Castillo Fraile and Miguel Sanchez Portal)

In addition to being a rare phenomenon, the timing of the apparent connections between the planet and the Sun will make it possible to make the solar parallax more accurate measurement of the distance between the Earth and the Sun. This was a major international collaboration, which included sending scientific expeditions to different regions, one of which was under the command of Cruls. The project was successful: in 1887, the then Imperial Observatory reached a value of 8.808 arcseconds, a measure that improved the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

Another great expedition took place in 1919. That year, Morris, already ON director, coordinated an expedition towards the city of Sobral, in Ceará, with the aim of observing a total solar eclipse on May 29. Carlos Vega, PhD in astronomy from ON and researcher, explains that eclipses have been of great interest to modern physics. From his observation, one of the postulates Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity“, He said.

In general, the theory suggests that a beam of light from a star passing close to some large star will be bent due to its strong gravitational field. That’s where the eclipse comes in: the idea was to photograph the sky during the phenomenon to use this image in comparison to another image, which showed the same stars on another night, to analyze their differences in location.

The Sobral Eclipse, as it became known, was followed by Brazilian, British and North American scientists, and Einstein realized the great importance of the observations made at Sobral to prove the theory of relativity. “The problem that came to my mind was the response to it by the luminous skies of Brazil,” he said, to a journalist.

But ON’s contributions also extend to the demarcation of the Brazilian capital. Having arrived in Brazil, Morez joined an expedition that determined the territory of the future Brazilian capital using the instruments of astronomy and geodesy, making it possible to identify four points in the form of a quadrilateral; Later, the area became Brasilia.

What does the National Research Observatory?

The National Observatory has researchers working in three main areas of knowledge. One of them is geophysics, which focuses on scientific research and investigation services in the subsoil and geophysical studies of the Brazilian territory, which contribute to the determination of the locations of resources such as oil and ore in the continental area and in the oceans. Thus, ON has been a pioneer in the geophysical surveys of the territory and the collection of seismic measurements since 1890.

Magnetograph obtained in March 1931 (Photo: National Observatory Collection)

In one such survey, specialists and researchers from other institutions worked to better understand the South Atlantic Magnetic Anomalies (AMAS) by digitizing magnetograms, and recordings of graphical variations in the geomagnetic field obtained with geophysical instruments. “Records of this kind contribute, for example, to a more efficient analysis of magnetic storms that occurred in Brazil,” explains Daniel Franco, a geophysics researcher at the observatory.

As for astronomy, the work in progress is diverse. There is the IMPACTON project, which aims to study the physical properties of small objects in the solar system through the Sertão de Itaparica Astronomical Observatory (OASI), the second largest telescope in the country, installed in Itacuruba (PE). “The scientific outcome of OASI’s ongoing work is being translated into publications in major astronomy journals, master’s and doctoral theses, and international collaborations,” explains Teresina Rodriguez, project collaborator and researcher at the observatory.

What then

As for the future research of the National Observatory, it is worth noting the Javalambre Physics of the Accelerating Universe Astrophysical Survey (J-PAS) project, which aims to observe more than 400 million galaxies and 500,000 galaxy clusters and groups.

“The project will help advance research to describe so-called dark energy – the physical mechanism behind cosmic acceleration – and will leave an enormous legacy for astrophysics in general,” says Renato de Alencar Dubke, principal investigator at ON.

The J-PAS and J-PLUS telescopes at the Javalambre Observatory (OAJ) (Image: Reproduction/J-PAS/J-PLUS)

Some aspects of international cooperation will also take place. Astronomers from the National Observatory were selected to use Next James Webb Space Telescope, which can be observed from the formation of the first galaxies to giant black holes and their effects on the early universe.

There is also a file Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), whose Scientific Advisory Committee was a member of ON. GMT will be installed in Chile by 2030.

From the National Community Observatory

The three main fronts of ON are the areas that, in addition to conducting research, also lead to the development of new technologies, along with the training of researchers, professional training and project coordination. In addition, the observatory is also the institution responsible for the creation, maintenance and dissemination of the Brazilian legal watch, an intrinsic activity of the national observatories.

The ON team is also dedicated to communicating this science to the public. “One area that has a special interaction with the public is astronomy,” notes Ricardo Ogando, a postdoctoral fellow in astronomy at the observatory. “People are always curious to know the latest news in the universe, Your black holes and distant galaxies. Of course, planet Earth is also a part of this universe and in the field of geophysics, events such as low-intensity earthquakes that occur in Brazil attract a lot of people,” he explains.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not possible to carry out activities that required the presence of the public. But fortunately, the Internet has been a great ally for enterprise programming. According to Ogando, there have been online broadcasts of major astronomical events, such as Alignment of Jupiter and Saturn, which allowed access to hundreds of thousands of participants, which is hardly possible physically.

Simone Daflon, an astronomer at ON, highlights the importance of popularizing science in society to learn about the research conducted in Brazil. “Proximity to the public promotes the exchange of experiences, cultivates critical thinking, and attracts young people to different fields of research,” he comments. “It is our responsibility to present science as knowledge in an engaging and interesting way, which can become a possibility for a professional career.”

Source: With information from: National Library, employment (1And 2And 3), FAPESP . magazine