Road Trippin’ Vd: Lowell Observatory

Before I return to relating the story of our 2012 road trip to Arizona, I want to let all of you know that Minnesota ranks #5 in WalletHub’s Analysis of 2016’s Best & Worst States for Summer Road Trips. That’s #5 of the best states. It seems we are #2 in road conditions and safety – must be a relationship to all of the road work that’s going on here, from the last snowfall of spring to the first one of fall.

Back to my story: Mark is fascinated with space and telescopes, so we took a drive up to Flagstaff, home of the Lowell Observatory, a non-profit research institution, established in 1894 by Percival Lowell. The location was chosen because its high altitude was conducive to good visibility. In 1958, the city of Flagstaff was the first city in the world to pass an outdoor lighting ordinance, significantly reducing light pollution, and it was designated a Dark Sky Community in 2001.

Before entering the buildings, we got to observe the sun at an outdoor telescope. Sunspot activity was fairly high at the time, so it was possible to see some spots on the sun. However, the time window was short due to clouds.


Percival Lowell Mausoleum

Lowell commissioned the first telescope in 1895, a 24-inch refracting telescope, built by Alvan Clark & Sons of Campbridgeport, MA. This telescope was used to create detailed maps of the moon in the 1960’s for NASA, maps that were studied  by Apollo astronauts as part of their training to go to the moon.Mr. Lowell’s mausoleum is located on the grounds, and is shaped like an observatory itself.

V.M. Slipher was an astronomer who spent his career at the Lowell Observatory, and made many discoveries using the Clark Telescope, including galactic redshifts, the first evidence of the expanding nature of the universe.

The Clark Telescope Dome is the oldest building at the Observatory. It was designed by Godfrey Sykes, and constructed in 1896  by local bicycle repairman, using local materials. It looks a bit like an upside down bucket. Originally, metal wheels were used to rotate the dome, but they wore out and were replaced with rubber Ford automobile tires in 1957.

The Clark is no longer used for research, but for education. Visitors can tour the Dome and the Rotunda Library which houses many artifacts from the Lowell’s history.


Pluto was discovered in 1930, using another telescope here. This telescope was built in the late 1920’s to search for the hypothetical ninth planet in our solar system. Clyde Tombaugh, an Observatory assistant, made the first recognized sighting of Pluto on February 18, 1930. Pluto enjoyed the designation of planet until 2006 when the International Astronomical Union voted to demote it, stating that it doesn’t qualify as a full-fledged planet, but only a dwarf planet.

At the time of our visit, the Lowell was working with the Discovery Channel to complete a 4.3 meter telescope, the Discovery Channel Telescope, which would vastly expand the breadth of their research capabilities. It was expected to be the fifth larges telescope in the continental United States. It was being constructed at a dark sky site in the Coconino National Forest, approximately 45 miles SSE of Flagstaff. The telescope was declared fully operational as of January 1, 2015.

TIME Magazine named the Observatory one of “The World’s Most Important Places” in 2011.

About kcbernick

I love to travel.
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