Lowell Observatory And Life On Mars (Hill)
Visit Lowell And See The Stars In Flagstaff
The first time I heard about Lowell Observatory was when my future husband brought me to his hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1995, shortly after we'd met. On that trip, we visited his childhood friend, whose home was perched on the edge of Mars Hill at the site of the Observatory, with a perfect view of the San Francisco Peaks from the back porch. His dad was an astronomer, and my fiancée and his boyhood friend had literally grown up at Lowell.
While visiting the Observatory, I thought how neat it must be to live on Mars Hill. Little did I know then that, eight years later, my husband would become Lowell Observatory's fourth instrument-maker in more than 100 years. And, in November, 2008, we moved into a home on that historic hill, reducing my husband's commute to five minutes on foot.
Lowell Observatory is one of those places where people come to work and end up staying for decades, often well past retirement age. And it's not just a great, family-oriented place to work, but also a wonderful place to visit. So if you're planning a trip to Flagstaff or just passing through on your way to the Grand Canyon perhaps, be sure to leave some time to head up the hill for a look around.
And give a wave towards the slump-block house on your right, after you pass through the stone pillars at the entrance to Lowell Observatory. That will be me, the girl on the porch, waving back.
Lowell Observatory's Mission Statement
The mission of Lowell Observatory is to "pursue the study of astronomy, especially the study of our solar system and its evolution; to conduct pure research in astronomical phenomena; and to maintain quality public education and outreach programs to bring the results of astronomical research to the public."
A Little About Lowell Observatory
Lowell is one of the oldest astronomical observatories in the United States, founded in 1894 by astronomer Percival Lowell and run for a time by his third cousin, Guy. The current trustee is William Lowell Putnam, grandnephew of Percival Lowell and son of long-time trustee Roger Putnam. The institution was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965.
Lowell Observatory welcomes more than 70,000 visitors each year, offering guided tours and views of the night sky through the original 24-inch Alvan Clark Telescope and other telescopes at the Mars Hill site. The Clark was built in 1896 at a cost of $20,000, assembled in Boston and transported by train to Flagstaff.
Also located on the Mars Hill campus is the 13-inch Pluto Discovery Telescope, used by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 to discover the dwarf planet (now "plutoid"), Pluto.
(Note: The telescope measurements -- ie. 13- and 24-inch -- refer to the diameters of the primary mirrors or "objective lenses.")
The Pluto Discovery Telescope at Lowell Observatory
Who Was Percival Lowell?
Percival Lowell, affectionately known as Uncle Percy up on Mars Hill, was born on March 13, 1855 in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1876, he graduated from Harvard University.
Until 1883, Lowell concentrated on various business interests, then traveled throughout the Far East for the next decade. He lived in Japan off and on during this time and wrote several books about his experiences there. He also served as the counselor and foreign secretary to the 1883 Special Mission from Korea to the United States, the first diplomatic group sent from Korea to any western power. Following this mission, Lowell stayed in Korea for several months as a guest of the government .
In 1893, Lowell decided to take up astronomy after hearing that Schaparelli, the man who originally discovered what he believed to be "canals" on Mars, was losing his sight and would not be able to continue his work. A year later, after extensive site testing, Lowell established his observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Here's an interesting article about Percival Lowell from the Boston Globe: The Man Who Invented Mars
Percival Lowell's Observatory
On Mars (Hill)
Percival Lowell's primary goal for his observatory was to study the solar system--Mars in particular. He theorized that the Martians (yes, "intelligent life" forms) were trying to keep their planet alive via a network of canals which channeled water from the polar caps to the rest of the planet. Several Martian globes illustrated by Lowell are contained in the Observatory archives.
Lowell also conducted research on other planets (about them, that is, not on them), particularly Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury and Venus. He was very involved in the search for a ninth planet, the existence of which he predicted mathematically by studying the oddities of Uranus's orbit which were not accounted for by Neptune. (Got that?) In addition, Lowell determined the internal makeup of Jupiter and Saturn by observing the movement of their satellites. He also sketched the surface of Mercury and determined periods of rotation for Mercury and Venus.
(Not that I understand any of that stuff, either.)
Percival Lowell died on November 12, 1916, and is buried in the mausoleum on Mars Hill, just a few hundred yards from where I'm sitting.
Visit "Uncle Percy's" Tomb at Lowell Observatory
Read About "Uncle Percy"
A book by Lowell Trustee, William Putnam, about his great uncle
See that cute red car on the cover? Well, that cute red car is now worth about half a million bucks (so I'm told), and my husband helps maintain it (*gulp*!) We all hold our collective breaths up here on Mars Hill when Mr. Putnam takes it out for a ride.
This is the story of a car -- a 1911 Stevens-Duryea Model Y "Big Six" -- and its famous owner, Percival Lowell, the astronomer best known for his studies of Mars and mathematical prediction of the discovery of Pluto. The story follows the vehicle, a product of Frank Duryea of the pioneering Duryea brothers, through its time with Lowell and subsequent owners to its present status as a moving historical landmark.
This automobile made its debut in Flagstaff, which, at that time, was a frontier logging and cow town with dirt roads in what was not yet one of the United States. It survived the years from 1911 when delivered to Percival Lowell, through his death in 1916, and through occasional use until 1938 when it was abandoned for sixty years. The car was neglected until being restored to its original form and condition and finally returning to Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill.
In this book, many of the important developments in the early history of the gasoline-powered automobile are traced to establish the context in which this vehicle was created. The community in which the Duryea brothers labored and their role in the evolution of the automobile industry are discussed. The text also provides an intimate look at the life of one of America's most important astronomers.
What to See and Do at Lowell Observatory
Located one mile west of downtown Flagstaff, Lowell's Mars Hill campus is home to the Steele Visitor Center, where you can join daytime guided tours every hour from 10:00 AM through 4:00 PM, or spend a star-filled evening of tours, exhibits and telescope viewing on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays beginning at 5:30 PM.
When you visit Lowell, you can explore interactive exhibits, experience a 3-D digital space theater, see wide screen multimedia shows in the auditorium, learn about more than 100 years of Mars Hill history and observe the night sky through both modern and historic instruments.
And while you're on Mars (Hill), be sure to check out the 535-pound meteorite, installed in the Visitor Center by my husband, who's often called out of the machine shop to help with exhibits. This hunk o' celestial rock was donated by Verkamp's Souvenir Shop at the Grand Canyon, where it was on display for a century.
If you decide to become a member--or "friend"--of the Observatory, you can come on up and explore the Universe as often as you'd like with free admission. You'll also receive a complimentary subscription to the quarterly newsletter, The Lowell Observer.
Lowell's Fun, Educational Series for Kids
Lowell Observatory has launched an 11-part, animated series that covers the solar system from the sun to Pluto, with stops at all the planets in between.
Take a Look Through the Clark Telescope
Here's A Look Inside The Clark Dome
If you listen to the tour guide, he'll tell you a bit about the telescope.
Flagstaff: the World's First International Dark Skies City
On October 24th, 2001, the City of Flagstaff became the world's first International Dark-Sky City.The designation was awarded by the International Dark-Sky Association, a nearly 10,000-member, non-profit organization dedicated to building awareness of the problems of light pollution and promoting quality outdoor lighting.
Beginning with the arrival of Percival Lowell and his Clark Telescope, Flagstaff has become one of the world's premier deep space research sites. On April 15, 1958, the Flagstaff City Council passed Ordinance #400, banning advertising search lights that threatened to spoil the night sky. 2008 marks the 50th anniversary of that event and the beginning of a dark skies movement that is spreading across the world.
Visit the Slipher Building's Rotunda Museum
Visitors enjoy a free concert by members of the Flagstaff Symphony outside the Rotunda.
Views From Mars (Hill)
Mars Hill and Observatory Mesa offer some of the best views of Flagstaff and the San Francisco Peaks. On your way up the hill from downtown, you'll see a pull-off just before the Observatory entrance. Once you're through with the visitor programs and maybe a nice walk in the woods, you can park for a while on your way out and watch and hear at least one of the more than 100 daily trains blow its horn through town.
Wildlife On Mars (Hill)
After visiting the Observatory, you might like to take a walk amongst the Ponderosa pines, keeping your eyes and ears open for any number of critters that make the Coconino National Forest their home.
From the windows of our house on Mars (Hill), we see wildlife on a daily basis, including a resident gray fox, more Abert squirrels than I could ever count, and a herd of elk that pass by the back porch quite frequently. Mule deer, jackrabbits and ravens are also common, and, if you're lucky, perhaps you'll even spot a bobcat.
Beyond Lowell grounds are miles upon miles of undeveloped Observatory Mesa for your hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing, x-country skiing, and critter-watching pleasure. Just park your car in the Visitor Center lot (not the employee lot ... thanks!) and off you go.
**To learn about some of the wildlife you might encounter on a hike in these parts, see my article, Wildlife of the Coconino National Forest
There's Lots Of Life on Mars (Hill)
Art On Mars (Hill)
Another really great thing about Lowell Observatory is its support of the arts, particularly its artistic employees. Among those artists is Jerry McGlothlin, who was Lowell's Grounds & Buildings supervisor for more than 20 years. Now retired, Jerry was and is an accomplished and versatile ceramicist, who created functional and elegant stoneware and porcelain in his Mars Hill studio. The studio was located in the C.O. Lampland Dome, also the Observatory's woodworking shop and greenhouse. Many a night we'd spend playing nickel Poker in the dome as Jerry fired his pottery in the kilns just outside. Shortly before Christmas for many years, Lowell Observatory sponsored an amazing show of Jerry's ceramics in the Rotunda museum.
Not Just Your Average Water Tank
The mural on this water tank at Lowell Observatory was painted by Trustee William Putnam's grandson, Chris. More of Chris's artwork--the painting of a wolf--adorns the door to my husband's machine shop in the John F. Wolff building.
Stained glass Saturn chandelier in Lowell's rotunda
Lowell Observatory Isn't Just on Mars (Hill) Anymore
The Observatory now operates four research telescopes at its Anderson Mesa "dark sky" site, 12 miles southeast of Flagstaff, including the 72-inch Perkins Telescope in partnership with Boston University, and the 42-inch John S. Hall Telescope. Lowell is a partner with the U.S. Naval Observatory and Naval Research Laboratory in the Navy Prototype Optical Interferometer (NPOI), also located at that site. (There's a mouthful for ya!)
The Observatory operates smaller research telescopes in Australia and Chile and is currently building the Discovery Channel Telescope in partnership with Discovery Communications, Inc. in Happy Jack, AZ.
The Discovery Channel Telescope
Forty miles southeast of Flagstaff in Happy Jack, Arizona, the 4.2-meter Discovery Channel Telescope, otherwise known as the "DCT," and its accompanying infrastructure sits atop a cinder cone at an elevation of 7,800 feet, surrounded by ponderosa pine forest as far as the eye can see.
The DCT is a powerful research tool for areas including the search for Near Earth Objects (NEOs), extrasolar planets, and exploration of the newly-discovered Kuiper Belt. It will also expand opportunities for public outreach and education in the world of science and technology.
Visit the Observatory's Discovery Channel Telescope page to learn more.
Finding Mars (Hill) and Lowell Observatory
More Lowell Reading
David Strauss's biography gives us the entire Percival Lowell. We learn of his mistresses, his Boston clubs, his visits to the exotic and romantic Orient and his attempt to make his mark as an adventure-travel author, and, finally, we learn about his astronomy and the feuds he had with the professional astronomical establishment.
In Strauss's hands, Percival Lowell is a compelling figure, whose story provides a rich insight into the nature of Boston society and the Boston Brahmins at a time when New England culture was becoming overshadowed by the New York aristocracy. I'm convinced that this is an important book.
--Owen Gingerich, Harvard University (20011101)
© 2008 Deb Kingsbury