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Visit The Lowell Observatory

Updated on July 22, 2015
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ReadMikeNow is a freelance writer who loves to travel. He likes to find unique stories about interesting places.

Entrance To Lowell Observatory
Entrance To Lowell Observatory | Source

When people visit Flagstaff, Arizona, they are usually anxious to see the Grand Canyon. This is a great experience, but it might also be worthwhile to take some time and visit the Lowell Observatory. It is recognized as one of the oldest observatories located in the entire United States. Lowell Observatory began as a place to view the heavens in 1894. In 1965, it earned the designation of National Historic Landmark. Time Magazine in 2011 listed the Lowell Observatory as one of the 100 most important places in the world.

Percival Lawrence Lowell
Percival Lawrence Lowell

Percival Lawrence Lowell

This is the person who founded the Lowell Observatory. He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1855. Percival Lawrence Lowell passed away from a stroke in 1916. He was 61 years old. Lowell is buried at the Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill. Lowell was from a wealthy Massachusetts family. He graduated from Harvard University in 1876 with a degree in math. During the 1880s, he traveled around the Far East. Lowell worked for a time as a foreign secretary in Korea. He also spent quite a bit of time in Japan. He wrote a number of books about the life of people in Japan.

Alvan Clark Telescope
Alvan Clark Telescope | Source

Alvan Clark Telescope

The Lowell Observatory is one of the few places where people can experience an original Alvan Clark telescope. In 1895, Alvan Clark & Sons of Massachusetts were commissioned to build a state-of-the-art telescope for the Lowell Observatory. It was 24-inches and started being used at the observatory in 1896. During the 1960s, there was a team of artists and scientists who utilized the Alvan Clark telescope when creating a very detailed map of the moon. This map was used to assist the manned trips to the moon by Apollo astronauts. Using the Alvan Clark telescope was even part of the astronaut's moon mission training. During the 1980s, the purpose of the Alvan Clark telescope became primarily educational. Since that time, millions of guests have visited the Lowell Observatory and enjoyed seeing the Alvan Clark telescope.

Telescope Used To Discover The Dwarf Planet Pluto
Telescope Used To Discover The Dwarf Planet Pluto | Source


Lowell studied the planet Mars from his observatory using the Alvan Clark telescope for fifteen years. He published three books on the subject. His observations made the idea of Mars being able to sustain an intelligent life form a popular idea. He made detailed drawings of the Martian surface. These drawings included canals as well as the oasis he referred to as dark spots.


During the last years of his life, Lowell dedicated much of his time to the search for Planet X. It was a planet that many scientists hypothesized existed beyond Neptune. During his life, Lowell was not able to discover the planet that eventually became known as Pluto. A photograph of a planet believed to be Pluto was taken from the Lowell Observatory in 1915. In 1930, a man named Clyde Tombaugh started working at the Lowell Observatory. He was able to discover the dwarf planet Pluto near the location of the theoretical planet X. The first two letters of the newly discovered planet were Lowell's initials. This discovery is considered Lowell's greatest achievement in planetary studies.

Research Telescopes

The Lowell Observatory operates four different types of research telescopes. They include the Perkins telescope utilized in partnership with Boston University. The John S. Hall telescope is located at a dark sky site that is approximately 12 miles from Flagstaff. There are also the small research telescopes that are used on the observatory's Mars Hill. It also has research telescopes in Chile as well as Australia. On the Happy Jack peak located near the Anderson Mesa, the Observatory has built a telescope for the Discovery Channel in conjunction with Discovery Communication, Inc. It is the fifth largest telescope in operation within the continental United States.

Percival Lowell's Mausoleum located on Mars Hill at Lowell Observatory
Percival Lowell's Mausoleum located on Mars Hill at Lowell Observatory | Source


A number of discoveries in the world of astronomy have taken place at the Lowell Observatory. The dwarf planet Pluto was discovered there as well as the rings of Uranus in 1977. Discovery of the three largest known stars as well as determining the accurate orbits of Pluto's moons occurred at the Lowell Observatory. The oxygen on Ganymede, a satellite of Jupiter as well as the variations of Halley Comet, Pluto's atmosphere and more have taken place at the Lowell Observatory.

Current Astronomy Work

The astronomers who currently work at the Lowell Observatory continue to perform research on a number of solar systems as well as a number of other astrophysical projects. They utilize space-based as well as airborne telescopes to conduct their research. Some of the projects involve a survey of the Kuiper Belt, which is located beyond the planet Neptune. They are also searching for asteroids that come near the Earth. The astronomers are also working on observing star formations and other events taking place in distant galaxies and more. The staff also makes custom instruments for use on telescopes around the world.

Visitor Activities

Visitors to the Lowell Observatory are able to view the Sun using a specially designed solar telescope. There are a number of daytime guided tours offered. Visitors can see the Pluto discovery telescope, Clark Telescope Dome as well as the historic Rotunda Library and more. It is also possible to see the Putnam Collection Center. This is where visitors can see Percival Lowell's 1911 Stevens-Duryea vehicle among other things. Visitors can watch a Discovery Channel special showing the construction of the Lowell's telescope. There is also Cosmic Zoom, which shows the Earth's place in the universe. Sky tonight enables visitors to view the constellations of the seasons and see visible planets, bright stars and more. When the weather permits, the observatory permits visitors to use the telescopes to view the moon, planets, stars and more. This will be done with the help of educators from the observatory.

Rotunda Museum
Rotunda Museum | Source

Rotunda Museum

There are a number of fascinating exhibits available for viewing at the Rotunda Museum. Visitors can learn more about Clyde Tombaugh's 1930 discovery of Pluto. It's also possible to discover how the Lowell Observatory assisted in mapping the moon for the Apollo space program. The notes, drawings and other work of Percival Lowell's research concerning Mars are available for viewing. It also has a number of antique calculating and measuring devices. There is also the Saturn Lamp. This is a beautiful stained-glass lamp built in 1918 by the LA Light company.

Putnam Collection Center

This facility opened in 2014. It is approximately 8,000 square feet. It contains processing rooms, offices as well as thousands of pictures. There are a number of artifacts, antique instruments as well as a large number of boxes that contain historic papers. Visitors can see Percival Lowell's first telescope that was given to him when he was 15 years old. Percival Lowell's hand drawings of Mars. Instruments built by the scientists who worked at the Lowell Observatory and more. There are even rare scientific books dating back hundreds of years. The most noticeable item is Percival Lowell's 1911 automobile called “Big Red.” The Stevens-Duryea automobile is still in working condition.

Galaxy Walk At Lowell Observatory
Galaxy Walk At Lowell Observatory | Source

Hours of Operation

The Lowell Observatory is open Monday through Saturday 10 am to 10 pm. It is also open on Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm.


Visiting The Lowell Observatory


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    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      2 years ago

      Thank you. I enjoyed the article's detail and the bio on Percival Lawrence Lowell. This seems a great place to visit.

    • Karine Gordineer profile image

      Karine Gordineer 

      3 years ago from Upstate New York

      Very interesting hub. Well thought out and well written. I will have to visit now!


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