Lowell Observatory launches Clark Telescope Renovation Campaign

Posted by David Eicher
on Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Few institutions in astronomy have the kind of ethereal sense of history that comes from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Established by Percival Lowell in 1896 and featuring one of the great refractors on Earth, the 24-inch Clark used by Lowell and others, the observatory is famous for its research on Mars and many other areas.

One of the great unsung moments in the history of astrophysics happened at Lowell when in 1912 astronomer Vesto M. Slipher was the first to notice shifts in the spectral lines of galaxies, making him the discoverer of extragalactic redshifts and the nature of the expanding universe.

Now Lowell Observatory is launching an important 60-day crowd-funding campaign to restore and renovate the classic 24-inch refractor, the instrument used by Lowell for his famous observations of Mars, by Slipher to study distant redshifts, and many other important research projects. The 24-inch refractor dates to 1896, and although it has been maintained sporadically over time, it is in need of significant work.

Near the telescope’s shed-like dome stands the mausoleum of Percival Lowell himself and a dome once stood nearby that housed the 13-inch astrograph with which Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. (The Pluto telescope was moved years ago to a darker site at Anderson Mesa.)

I feel a strong attachment to Lowell Observatory, having visited the site many times, and in 1985, I spent 10 days doing research there with my friend Brian Skiff (still an astronomer at Lowell) for a story that ran in Deep Sky magazine. I remember vividly waking up on the visitor center couch after late nights of taking data, hazily seeing the portrait of Lowell staring down at me. The whole place is steeped in history, and it is a critical time for us all to contribute to keeping Lowell’s most important telescope in top-shape.

I ask you to check out this site and please contribute. There isn’t a more important cause in the field of astronomy.

Lowell’s press release follows:




In 1895, Lowell Observatory founder Percival Lowell commissioned the Alvan Clark & Sons Firm of Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, to build a state-of-the-art 24-inch refracting telescope. Since completion of the project the following year, the telescope has been in regular use to view the heavens and help unravel the wonders of the universe. While Lowell staff members have conscientiously maintained the telescope through the years, the facility is now in need of a large-scale overhaul, requiring disassembly of the telescope and replacement of parts no longer functioning properly.

Significance of Telescope

The Clark Telescope is one of seven structures listed in the Observatory’s 1964 Registered National Historic Landmark designation. In 1999, First Lady Hillary Clinton recognized Lowell Observatory and, specifically, the Clark, as a site worthy of preservation as part of her Save America’s Treasures program.

Historic Research
Percival Lowell initially used the telescope to further his legendary theories about intelligent life on Mars, research that brought worldwide attention to Lowell Observatory. Percival’s elegant writings about his research, based on observations made with the Clark Telescope, inspired the work of both scientists, such as rocket expert Robert Goddard, and writers, including science-fiction icons H.G Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Later generations used the Clark Telescope to study double planets, moons, comets, and more.  Of particular note, V.M. Slipher revolutionized our understanding of space with his observations of the expanding nature of the universe. He made these fundamental discoveries while using the Clark Telescope in conjunction with an instrument called a spectrograph, a device astronomers use to not only determine the composition of celestial objects, but also to detect their line-of-site motion.

In the 1960s, a team of scientists and artists used the Clark Telescope to create detailed maps of the Moon in support of America’s manned voyages to the Moon. Apollo astronauts studied these maps and some even used the Clark Telescope for part of their training to go to the Moon.

By the 1980s, education replaced research as the primary use of the Clark Telescope. Since then, more than 2 million guests have had the opportunity to enjoy the telescope by joining daytime historic tours or viewing celestial objects during the evening. In 2012, 80,000 people — including 7,500 school children — visited the facility. By 2015, we anticipate these numbers to increase to 110,000 and 8,500, respectively.

In 2012, Lowell launched a new education initiative, Uncle Percy’s Kids Camp, and in 2013 we are moving forth with other efforts, including an ambitious long-range plan to establish the Observatory as a center for STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. The Clark Telescope is critical to the long-term success of these endeavors.

Renovation/Preservation Plan
Telescope, Mount and Pier Improvements

Over the past several years, the telescope has become more and more difficult to move, due to the degradation of the main support bearings in the optical tube. If this problem continues, the telescope will become inoperable. To avoid this outcome, we will remove (using a crane) and dismantle the optical tube and replace faulty parts, most of which will be fabricated in-house.

We will also clean all components, including the primary lens, optical tube, and main pier.  If necessary, we will strip and recoat the pier. Finally, we will upgrade the malfunctioning tracking system.

Dome Improvements
Old wiring is a major safety issue with the dome, recently resulting in sparking and arcing. We will thus replace all existing wiring, as well as switch gear and load center.

We will also replace the shutter doors, which no longer operate properly on a regular basis (leaving us with no other option on some nights but to shut down the facility). Additionally, we will repair metal siding, particularly in areas where snow and rain enter the dome, and refinish the floor.

Timing and Location of Renovation Work
We will complete the project within nine months of receiving funding, with most of the work done onsite. This will allow visitors to see progress first-hand. We will then host a dedication and grand reopening of the telescope.

Personnel Leading the Renovation Effort
Ralph Nye, Lowell’s Senior Facilities Engineer, will supervise and, in many cases, perform the work. Instrument Maker Steve Lauman will fabricate the replacement parts. To assure compliance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, the Observatory will retain the services of an historic preservation architect, who will interface with the State of Arizona Historic Preservation Office.

For more information about the Clark Telescope Historic Preservation Project, please contact Lowell Outreach Manager Kevin Schindler at kevin@lowell.edu or (928) 233-3210.

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.



Receive news, sky-event information, observing tips, and more from Astronomy's weekly email newsletter.

Find us on Facebook