Western Trips

Western Trips

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Lowell Observatory / Arizona

Flagstaff Arizona is home to one of the premiere observatories found anywhere in the world. One of the first things to recognize about the Lowell Observatory is that it is a non-profit research institution. It's revenue is derived from generous donors. A mesa that sits high above Flagstaff Arizona was chosen as a site in 1894 by Percival Lowell. Lowell was a businessman as well as an astronomer. Lowell graduated from Harvard with a degree in mathematics.

lowell observatory in Flagstaff
John S. Hall Telescope
The significance of the Lowell Observatory has been evidenced by some of the remarkable discoveries made there. One in particular was the discovery of Pluto in 1930, fourteen years after Percival Lowell's death. The discovery of Pluto is considered Lowell Observatory's most significant discovery to date. Lowell astronomers were also the very first to discover the rings of Uranus among other discoveries. Anderson Mesa in Flagstaff is also the site of the Navy Prototype Optical Interferometer program, a joint venture of the Lowell Observatory, the U.S. Naval Observatory, and the Naval Research Laboratory.


Percival Lowell, the observatory's founder, also had a strong desire to study the planet Mars. He was convinced that there was some type of intelligent life on the planet Mars. For many years he studied the planet and made diagrams of the canals seen on the planet. This was the first detailed account of what the surface of Mars looked like. The canals that Lowell charted were thought by him to be evidence that some sort of intelligent civilization at one time had constructed them, possibly as a result of a diminished water supply.. As is not uncommon in the scientific community, some astronomers were doubtful of Lowell's findings, in particular his assumption that the canals were made by intelligent beings as opposed to natural phenomena. This question was largely answered in 1965 when NASA's Mariner IV probe discovered mostly a barren landscape on the planet. In addition to this, Mariner IV recorded surface temperatures of -100 Celsius nor were any magnetic fields found. Mariner IV data pretty much ruled out any intelligent life on Mars and thus disproved the canal theory.

clark telescope at lowell observatory
Clark Telescope, Lowell Observatory
Today, the observatory opens it's doors to students in Flagstaff and throughout Arizona with various educational projects concentrating on all students K through 12th grade including all the Native student population of the state. The Lowell Observatory offers an excellent museum/ visitor center and schedules various events throughout the year. There are four research telescopes at the Anderson Mesa Flagstaff site about twelve miles southeast of Flagstaff. At the Mars Hill site on the west side of Flagstaff is the Pluto Discovery Telescope as well as the original Clark Telescope and several others. The Clark Telescope was built in 1896 for a cost of $20,000. During our visit, we enjoyed a guided walking tour to the 42 inch John S. Hall Telescope. Hall was a former Lowell Observatory director. The telescope was acquired in 1971 and was upgraded in 1994. It was named after Hall in 1991. Also during our visit, the observatory opened the 24 inch Clark Telescope for a fun view of the Moon. The operators of the Clark Telescope were very helpful in answering questions of what exactly on the Moon's surface we were viewing. It's a great treat for the entire family.

 lowell observatory visitor center
Lowell Observatory Visitor Center, Flagstaff Arizona
The big news at Lowell Observatory as of this writing was the construction of the 4.28 meter Discovery Channel Telescope at the observatory's site near Happy Jack Arizona. This is about forty miles southeast of Flagstaff. The project was a partnership between the Discovery Channel and the Lowell Observatory costing some $53 million. The telescope construction was completed in February 2012. At this time it's not anticipated to be open to the public. The Discovery Channel Telescope will be the fifth largest in the United States and will be the premiere research telescope for Lowell Observatory.  Plans are for the Discovery Channel to use the new large telescope for educational programs pertaining to astronomy and science. There will also be updates on the telescope's activity online.

Another good addition to your Arizona trip planner is a stop at the historic La Posada Hotel in Winslow Arizona, about 57 miles east of Flagstaff.

Hours, admission fees, and special events held at Lowell Observatory can be found on their website. You can learn more about our Universe though widescreen multimedia shows, plus exhibits, guided tours and presentations. Adding a visit to the Lowell Observatory during your Arizona road trip vacation is a fun and educational adventure.

(Photos from author's private collection)

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