Visiting historic Lowell Observatory

Posted by David Eicher
on Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Percival Lowell's first telescope. // Credit: David J. Eicher
What a day! On Monday, February 9, Astronomy Senior Editor Michael Bakich and I started incredibly early and headed north from Tucson to Flagstaff, Arizona, another key town in the history of astronomy. We conducted a whirlwind tour of several astronomical institutions, beginning with one of my favorite observatories on the planet. Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill in Flagstaff holds a unique position in the history of astronomy. Here, the wealthy Boston astronomy enthusiast Percival Lowell founded one of the great early American observatories, explored with great gusto the planet Mars, and established a base where Vesto M. Slipher discovered the expansion of the universe and where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto.

Lowell is also very special because in the 1980s I spent 10 days here working as an astronomer, producing a story called “Ten Days on Mars Hill,” under the guidance of astronomer Brian Skiff. Our host this time around again was Brian, still cranking away on a huge variety of projects, still living on the mountain, and graciously giving us a wonderful tour. Back in the day, Brian contributed many stories and a column to my little magazine called Deep Sky. I still can vividly remember waking up on the couch in the Lowell Visitor Center, after a long night of taking data, with the big spooky portrait of Percival Lowell staring down at me.

This time, we encountered Lowell at a very unusual time: the famous 24-inch Clark refractor, made famous from Lowell’s observations of Mars, is now disassembled, undergoing a major and historic refurbishment. We had a tour of the dome, of the telescope’s many individual pieces and all the work being done on it, from lens to cell to tube sections to drive, mount, counterweights — the whole nine yards. It was an incredible experience to see! And we owe gracious thanks to Brian and to Peter Rosenthal, who is overseeing the renovation. The staff members believe the telescope will be reassembled and rededicated sometime late this spring or early summer, the timetable greatly aided by the incredibly mild winter. (It was in the mid 60s today, even at Flagstaff’s high elevation.)

We also saw various other aspects of the observatory, including Percival Lowell’s tomb, and many historic artifacts, including Lowell’s first telescope, his famous martian globes, his automobile, and other incredible things. One of the most amazing is the spectrograph used by Slipher to discover the expansion of the universe. (Yes, that’s right — Edwin Hubble did NOT make that discovery.)

Many more tidbits from Lowell will be coming, and we will cover the observatories on this trip in an upcoming story in Astronomy.

Today, we are back to Tucson, and I will share other institutional visits over the coming days.

What a wonderful thing it is to be in astronomy’s capital!

For all images from this trip, visit the Online Reader Gallery.

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