Observatory 11 – Lowell

The Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ, was oddly not originally on my list of places to go. I’m not sure how I had missed it, but when I was preparing for the sabbatical, one of my support team, Paul, noticed it wasn’t listed. Since he had been there, he asked about it and insisted that I go there. I’m really glad he did, because Lowell is one of my favorite observatories now!

Because it is sort off by itself in north-central Arizona and not very near to the other Arizona sites I was planning on, it became somewhat problematic figuring out how I could get there. Flagstaff is on an Amtrak line, but there is no line connecting Flagstaff and Tucson, my primary base in the state. What I had figured to do was spend the week in Tucson (see previous entries), go on to California for a week, then stop in Flagstaff on the way back to Albuquerque, NM. The problem there was that the train arrived once a day in Flagstaff at 4:00 a.m. So I’d have to get off then and kill six hours until the observatory opened at 10 a.m., hang around until it closed at 10 p.m., and kill another six hours before catching the train again at 4 a.m. the next day. This did not sound like a good plan, but I couldn’t quite figure another way.

And this is the way things went through the entire trip. I spent a lot of time sorting out how I was going to get from here to there and where to stay and all, but in the end things just fell together. So here’s what happened. After making my trips to Kitt Peak and Mount Graham, I was planning on the following Monday to go south from Tucson to the Fred Lawrence Whipple VERITAS Gamma Ray Observatory. I was pretty psyched about it, as it was one of the few non-optical observatories on my list, plus my wife’s maiden name is Whipple. So just to be sure, I called the visitor center to see about tour details and such, and I learned that they were closed for the week because of road construction. It’s a pretty remote site in the mountains about an hour or more south of Tucson, so if the road needs some work, there aren’t a lot of options. Well, that put the kibosh on gamma rays. So I had a couple empty days to kill in Tucson. Eventually, it hit me that I could drive to Flagstaff to see Lowell Observatory and back and easily make my train to California on Tuesday night. Then I wouldn’t have to do the convoluted nonsense stop I had imagined! It was like a dream come true, except without any gamma rays.

Driving to Flagstaff

I made a hotel reservation for Monday night in Flagstaff and got in touch with my friend Jelena from Kitt Peak who works at Lowell to tell her I was coming up and would be there Monday afternoon. She said she’d meet me when I got there. Tours run all day, and they also have observing every clear night. This was going to be great!

I set out relatively early in the morning Monday for the 4+ hour drive. From Tucson to Phoenix was pretty easy with little traffic and wide open vistas. Phoenix is an impressive, sprawling city in the desert to drive around. Eventually, it gives way to the open vistas again. I stopped at a rest stop about an hour from Phoenix and from Flagstaff, and it was one of the most picturesque views at a rest stop I’ve ever seen. Took a bunch of pictures, but they don’t do it any justice. Rolled into Flagstaff around noon and grabbed a quick lunch at Wendy’s. Not great, but it was the first thing I saw that I recognized.

Sunset Point Rest Stop on I-17 between Phoenix and Flagstaff

The Lowell Observatory

Flagstaff is a pretty town, at least what I saw of it, with a cool college-town vibe (University of Northern Arizona is there), plus it has the observatory where Pluto was discovered, which pushes the cool factor to 11. It’s also got some ski resort vibe, although probably less of that in August when I was there. Still, pine trees on jutting and rolling hills – it’s nice!

And the observatory campus is beautiful! You wind up a hill (Mars Hill, I think) through treelined neighborhoods, and then you come to this place that looks like summer camp. The visitor center is a modern building with lots of lecture rooms and exhibit space and gift shop (of course!). It serves as the gateway to the rest of the campus, which has a variety of old and new buildings, observatory domes, offices, labs, and lecture halls, with long, broad, winding pathways and trees and flowers everywhere. This is a space designed for people to enjoy, not just a utilitarian scientific site. Many of the buildings are made of stone and several of the historic domes are made of local pine, shaped like an upside-down stave bucket. It turns out the strength characteristics of the soft pine wood doesn’t allow for making a traditional dome. It’s okay. The bucket shapes are unique, functional, and fit the campus. On the inside they are homey and rustic, which I really liked.

The Pluto Finder Dome

Tours

I started in the museum lecture room where our docent Liza (“Lisa with a Z”) was talking about Percival Lowell, his quest to find Planet X, and his study of Mars. The museum includes several of Lowell’s notebooks with sketches of Mars. You can see how he believed he was seeing alien structures – canals – on the surface. It was probably a feedback loop where the way he interpreted what he was seeing affected what he was seeing that supported his interpretation. We know now, of course, that there are no canals on Mars, but at the turn of the 20th century Lowell had some of the best views of the planet available, and nobody knew any better.

Lowell’s sketches from the 24″ Clark refractor, c. 1905

Pluto Finder

Docent Liza wrangling the Pluto Finder

After the introductory lecture, we made our way the Pluto Finder dome. This is where Clyde Tombaugh did the grunt work observing to find Planet X. Along the path to get there are markers for the planets of the solar system at scale distances so you get an idea of how far Pluto really is from us. (Spoiler: REALLY FAR!) The dome is two stories with a wee museum downstairs, which we did not investigate, and the telescope up a narrow staircase running along the curved wall. The scope is a 16″ refractor astrograph, that is a telescope specifically designed for astrophotography and not optical observing, designed by Alvan Clark. Tombaugh would take photos on glass plates of small sections of the sky and develop them. Then after several days or weeks he would take more pictures of the same sections and develop those. Then he would compare the two plates, which were about a foot square, side by side, inch by inch, with magnifying lenses and a “blinker.” With the two plates side by side, the blinker had a lever or switch that would close off the view of one plate, and then with a flip of the lever it would block the other plate, so the viewer could compare the two. It was painstaking work! Eventually, he happened to notice one small dot that moved between two plates. That was Pluto! According to Liza, Tombaugh was looking at that piece of sky because some mathematical calculations suggested that an object in that region could account for a discrepancy found in the orbit of Neptune. It turns out that (1) the calculated discrepancy was an error and didn’t really exist, (2) Pluto has no significant effect on Neptune’s orbit, and (3) Pluto just happened to be in that part of the sky. It was lucky happenstance that it was found.

Clark 24″ Refractor

By now if you’ve been following my blog you should be familiar with the name Clark. Alvan Clark was the premier telescope maker in America in the late 19th century. After his 7″ refractor at Williams College, his 40″ refractor at Yerkes, and the refigured Fitz refractor at Allegheny, the Pluto Finder and the 24″ refractor at Lowell were the fourth and fifth Clark telescopes that I got my hands on. That’s pretty cool!

The 24″ refractor is pretty much what you would expect at this point, then: a big, beautiful, well-balanced scientific instrument that has been in use for about 125 years. Lowell used it, as noted above, for his observations of Mars, but it was also used for early observations that led to the discovery of the expansion of the universe. Like the Yerkes scope, it has been modified with various electronics and such, but most of the equipment attached is original. The multi-ton assembly is balanced so well that Liza (probably every bit of 100 lbs.) was able to slew it around without difficulty. Again, the pine dome, walls, and floor give the observatory a cozy feel. I like my science to be homey. Nowadays the 24″ is used primarily for public outreach. While Flagstaff’s light pollution isn’t as bad as a lot of places because it is the world’s first International Dark Sky Place, there is a highway and a train track that point headlights right at the Clark dome, which is enough to trash a lot of science. Plus, the instrument is not really up to leading edge science in an age of giant reflecting telescopes. (The Lowell Observatory owns and operates several large research telescopes, including the 4.3-meter Discovery Channel telescope which live on other campuses.) I mean, I’d take it to do some science, but they aren’t selling.

The Afternoon

The rest of the afternoon was less structured. I spent some time just walking around the campus, which as I’ve mentioned, I found to be just a beautiful place. The weather was perfect, so that helped, but the lodge pole pine trees smell really good, and the wind makes a lovely sound blowing through them. I took a video to catch that sound, but now I can’t find it. I also took in a presentation on Mars exploration, its history, present, and future plans, that was good. I was pretty familiar with most of the material, as I recall, but it was still fun and informative. Mars was in the public eye at that point because it was just past its close approach and it was undergoing a global dust storm. This combination was very frustrating to most astrogeeks! It was one of the closest approaches since 2003, which promised better viewing opportunities than usual, but the dust storm obliterated all detail visible from Earth. For the average non-astrogeek citizen, the fuss about Mars was probably more about whether or not it would be the size of a full moon. (Spoiler: It was not.) After the presentation, I spent some time watching a few movie loops and shopping in the gift store. It being about suppertime, I went in to town to find some food. I happened upon the Beaver Street Brewery, where I had a nice brown ale and a roasted garlic pizza. Very nice.

The Evening Program

Every clear night the Lowell Observatory opens to the public for sky viewing. This was very pleasant on a very pleasant evening! The sky was clear, temperature was warm, and there was waning moon. Several local volunteers bring their equipment for people to look through, and staff members are available to run some of the official scopes, give informative presentations, and answer questions. For example, one fellow was telling star lore from some of the ancient cultures, mostly Greek and some Native American, about the characters that ended up as constellations. He was really hamming it up, but it was interesting and fun.

A woman had her 20×80 binoculars set on M7, an open cluster. A man had his classic orange Celestron 8″ SCT lined up on Jupiter and later on Mars. The aforementioned Martian dust storm was beginning to subside, and I was able to make out a little bit of detail on the planet, with some patience. Another fellow had a 16″ Dobsonian pointed at globular cluster M13, which was beautiful. The official Lowell scopes were a 16″ Cassegrain reflector (The McAllister telescope) through which I saw open cluster M11, and of course, the 24″ Clark refractor.

The Clark was trained on Saturn, and there was a line to take a look. The sky was clear but seeing was wavy. The magnification was 175x, which is about what I use at home on a bumpy night. So you could see the Cassini division and some color on the disk, and a bit of ring shadow and shadow on the rings (it was close to opposition). Not bad, but of course it wasn’t what I was hoping for. Again. I asked the docent what magnification the Clark could take, and he said, “It might start to break a sweat at 1250x on a good night!” Wow! That would be something to see. Maybe someday I’ll get to one of these places on a good night. As it was, 175x would have to do, and it did well enough that I got back in line for a second go.

Load out

The program went until maybe 9:30 p.m. It having been a full day, I made my way across town to my hotel for the night. I kind of took my time leaving in the morning and made the four hour drive back to Tucson. Somehow I got confused about time in this unexpected side trip. I got back to the apartment at midday and thought I had plenty of time to get to the train station by 6:00 p.m., but what I forgot was that I was supposed to have checked out of the apartment at 11:00 a.m.! I was just about to get into the shower when there was a knock at the door. It was the cleaning crew! I threw some clothes on and went out to tell them I’d be out in just a few minutes. Took a super-fast shower and packed all my stuff and was out the door in about 15 minutes! I left a bigger tip than I would have otherwise and apologized to the guys on my way out.

Now I had several hours to kill and no place to be. I went to the Himmel Park Library, where I had spent some time before going to the UA mirror lab a week before. Killed those hours, took my car back to the airport, got Lyft to the train station, waited the extra hours the train was late (of course), and set out for California.


If you’d like to see my full set of photos from Lowell Observatory, click here.