Where Lowell opened eyes to Mars and the universe

Email|Print| Text size + By David A. Kelly
Globe Correspondent / February 8, 2004

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- If NASA is able to use data from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers to discover traces of water on Mars, it would have come as no surprise to Percival Lowell. The amateur astronomer and mathematician from Boston's aristocratic Lowell family was so convinced that dark thin lines he saw on Mars were artificial canals built by intelligent beings that he spent 15 years of his life studying the planet, and used part of his fortune to found in 1894 an observatory dedicated to interplanetary research.

Today, on a high mesa called Mars Hill, just west of Flagstaff, visitors to the Lowell Observatory can sit exactly where Lowell sat more than 100 years ago and look through the same Clark telescope to get a firsthand look at Mars, neighboring planets, and star clusters. During the day, visitors can take guided tours to learn how Lowell (1855-1916) devoted the last years of his life to looking for Planet X, only to die before it was discovered at the observatory in 1930. The planet, now known as Pluto, is within 6 degrees of where Lowell had predicted.

While Lowell's Martian canals and theories of extraterrestrial life didn't hold up to subsequent scientific scrutiny, his Mars research paved the way for more detailed studies of all the planets. In fact, with more than 20 full-time astronomers, Lowell Observatory is one of the largest privately operated astronomical research observatories in the world. It operates nine telescopes at two locations in Arizona and one in Australia. Both the famous 24-inch Clark refractor telescope (made in Cambridgeport, Mass.) that Lowell had built especially for observing Mars, as well as the Pluto telescope that Clyde Tombaugh used to discover that planet, are on Mars Hill and open to the public. The observatory's primary research telescopes are now about 10 miles southeast on Anderson Mesa and are typically closed to the public.

"While we're best known for the discovery of Pluto, our most important discovery occurred in 1912," says Jeffrey Hall, assistant research scientist. "V.M. Slipher used the Clark telescope to gather the first evidence of our expanding universe through identification of 'red shifts' in astronomical objects that indicated they were all receding from us." This discovery ultimately led astronomer Edwin Hubble to identify the fact that the universe was expanding, and laid the foundation for the big-bang theory that fundamentally changed the traditional view that the universe was static and unchanging.

In the elegantly detailed 1916 Slipher Building Rotunda, visitors can see the spectrograph used by Slipher to measure red shifts, the blink comparator that was used to discover Pluto, Lowell's sketchbooks and globes with his drawings of the Martian canals, and more recent additions such as a training book from the Apollo moon program signed by astronaut Neil Armstrong. Large maps of the moon and Mars hang in the hallways, examples of the observatory's work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the 1960s and '70s, when the United States was trying to find a safe landing place for its moon missions and the Viking missions to Mars. Observatory cartographers continued Lowell's tradition of detailed surface mapping, aiding NASA in the selection of potential landing sites.

Guided tours are given two or three times a day and typically include a multimedia presentation on topics such as Lowell's history or modern research programs. A short walking tour brings visitors to the important sites on the Mars Hill Campus, including both the Clark and Pluto telescopes and the Slipher Rotunda and its exhibits. Keep in mind that the campus is at an elevation of 7,260 feet and people not accustomed to the altitude or the cool thin air may want to pace themselves.

If it's sunny on the day you visit, the observatory may have its solar telescope set up, allowing you to safely observe the sun by blocking out enough solar rays so that your eyes are not damaged.

"You can see sun spots and flares when they happen," Hall said. "Or see clouds of gas hanging in the sun's atmosphere. Looking through the solar telescope and watching the sun change gives you a good feeling for just how dynamic it actually is."

In addition to the daytime programs, the observatory offers visitors a chance to see the planets during evening programs, which run Monday-Saturday during summer, and Friday and Saturday in fall, winter, and spring. With its elevation, Flagstaff offers near-perfect viewing conditions: The skies are dark and typically cloudless and the atmosphere contains less image-distorting water vapor than other locations. What you will see depends on the season and year; the observatory offered spectacular views of Mars last summer, for example, but the planet has been getting fainter and fainter since. It will be in opposition (the best viewing angle) again in November 2005. Then, visitors will be able to use the Clark telescope, with Lowell's original eyepiece, to see the polar caps and coloration changes (light to dark) on the Martian surface.

"You'll see it as Lowell saw it," Hall said. "Since they're white, the polar caps stick out like sore thumbs, giving the planet a 3D-type look that really pops out and looks like a sphere, not a flat image."

In the meantime, visitors can see a variety of other planets, including Saturn and Jupiter, both of which are dramatic through Lowell's historic telescope. Saturn will be the featured planet through mid-April, with Jupiter starting after that. In particular, visitors will get to see a fantastic view of Saturn's rings (when seen from Earth) at near their maximum tilt of 27 degrees, making them quite distinct. Made of bright ice particles, the rings are especially easy to see with the Clark telescope, and the timing is fortuitous.

"The Cassini spacecraft is set to arrive in the Saturn system this summer, and planetary scientists are looking forward to its making many spectacular discoveries about the planet, its rings, and its host of icy moons," said Will Grundy, a Lowell associate astronomer.

Percival Lowell is buried at the top of the hill in a mausoleum near the Clark telescope, and the observatory works hard to continue his passion for solar system-focused research. Many of the large observatories around the world are financed by consortiums of colleges or governments and have to divide telescope time on a rotating basis, making it difficult for astronomers who need ongoing access. Since Lowell is a private, independent institution that owns all its own instruments, its astronomers can use them month after month, year after year, to take observations in a way that's hard to do almost anywhere else. As a result, research initiatives at Lowell tend to be focused on long-term studies that often require ongoing observations and data sets.

Lowell's current key research projects include, among others, a search for small objects (called Kuiper Belt Objects) in the outer solar system; a hunt for asteroids and comets that approach Earth; and exploration of the activity cycle of our sun and similar stars. Their biggest project is development of a new four-meter telescope called the Discovery Channel Telescope. Partially financed by the cable TV network of the same name for the right to create television shows featuring research generated by the telescope, the $30 million Discovery Channel Telescope will keep Lowell scientifically competitive when it's completed in 2008. It's expected to be one of the largest telescopes in the continental United States and among the most sophisticated ground-based telescopes of its size.

Lowell left his estate to the observatory, dictating that the money be used to continue astronomical research and maintain an opening and welcoming stance to the public. The observatory's long history of scientific accomplishments, including its discoveries of Pluto and the codiscovery of the rings of Uranus, the identification of the first evidence of an expanding universe, and its contributions to long-term solar system astronomy, show how successfully it has fulfilled that research mission over the last 85-plus years. Today, visitors to Flagstaff (and in the future, Discovery Channel viewers) can take advantage of Lowell's passion for astronomy and his generosity with the family fortune to get an up-close and personal look at our nearest planetary neighbors.

David A. Kelly is a freelance business and travel writer who lives in West Newton.

How to get there

The lowest round-trip air fare available at press time from Boston to Phoenix was $189 on Northwest Airlines, and from Providence $233 on Delta, Continental, Northwest, and American Airlines. Phoenix, about 2 hours south of Flagstaff, is the largest airport nearby. America West Airlines offers nonstop flights to Phoenix from Boston, as well as flights into Flagstaff's airport.

Lowell Observatory is on a mesa on the west side of Flagstaff. From Phoenix, take Interstate 17 north to Flagstaff. Continue on Milton road north, left onto West Santa Fe Avenue and follow to the end. Take the right fork and drive one mile up the switchback road to the visitors center.

Lowell Observatory

1400 West Mars Hill Road, Flagstaff


Generally open noon--5 p.m. during winter, and 9 a.m.--5 p.m. the rest of the year. Open Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 in the winter; Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 7:30 in spring and fall; and Monday through Saturday nights at 8 in the summer. Call for specific hours. Closed Jan. 1, April 11, Nov. 25, and Dec. 24-25.

Adults, $5; children 5-17, $2; AAA/senior/student, $4; children 4 and under free. Separate admission for day and evening programs.

Where to stay

The Radisson Woodlands Hotel

1175 West Route 66, Flagstaff

800-333-3333 or 928-773-8888

This is the closest hotel to the observatory. Rates range from $59 (winter) to $119 (summer).

Little America Hotel

2515 East Butler Ave., Flagstaff

928-779-7900 or 800-865-1401

Rates range from $79 (winter) to $129 (summer). Little America is a cross between a truck stop and a hotel, with large, clean rooms and a 1960s Western feel to the decor.

Where to eat

Charly's Pub and Grill

23 N. Leroux St., Flagstaff


On the ground floor of the Historic Weatherford Hotel, in the heart of downtown Flagstaff, Charly's serves steak, chicken, seafood, and Southwest specialties. Don't miss the top-floor Zane Grey Ballroom.

Don Diegos

801A S. Milton Road, Flagstaff


Specializes in great New Mexican and Native American foods and is also open for breakfast.

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