Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Lowell Observatory and Friends

As I mentioned in our last post, we had the opportunity to meet up with college buddies Anthony and Anita (University of Iowa, 1970s) in Flagstaff Sunday. Anthony and I met in a general astronomy class (taught by the famous James Van Allen), so a natural place to meet up was Lowell Observatory. Melinda had never seen it, so it was a date!

Lowell Observatory is a private observatory, started by Percival Lowell with the construction of a 24" refractor on a hilltop in Flagstaff in 1894. It was at Lowell that Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930, working on a search for "Planet X" initiated by Percival himself. Though Pluto has been downsized to a dwarf planet, Lowell is at the forefront of astronomical research, and a partner in the new Discovery Channel Telescope, a 4.3 meter diameter telescope mentioned a few posts ago, since the mirror is under construction across the street at the Optical Sciences Center. We took the afternoon tour after meeting up with our friends, and brand new Lowell employee Jonathan, whom I've known for a decade and a half from the Grand Canyon Star Party. Jonathan just moved to town 2 weeks before, so it was great seeing him. His blog "Every Day is a New Adventure" is linked down on the right side of this page.

Shown here, our tour guide Mary Jane is showing off the relative sizes of the telescope diameters at Lowell. The original 24" is shown in brown, the scope that had been their largest for some time is a 72" (shown in yellow), and the new 4.3 meter Discovery Channel Telescope, shown in blue. Since the relative power of a telescope is in it's light gathering power, the DCT will be powerful indeed!

The tour starts with a walking tour of the 24", now nearly 115 years old. While no longer routinely used for research, it is still an impressive instrument. In fact, the night before, Anthony and Anita had gone to the public observing session and were privileged to observe Saturn through it. It is an interesting telescope - a combination of state-of-the-art of the Victorian age, combined with the craftsmanship of the Sykes Brothers, local craftsmen whom Percival Lowell put to work supporting all aspects of the Observatory. The lens cover for the big guide scope - a frying pan from the kitchen of Constance Lowell that happened to be the right diameter...

The thing I really like about Lowell is that it has a real sense of history. Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, while only half the age of Lowell, has very little in historical displays. Lowell revels in displays of early instruments, telescopes and artwork. The Slipher Rotunda Museum, shown here, has all the above as well as duplicates of the Pluto discovery plates mounted on the blink comparator that Clyde Tombaugh himself used to discover the planet. Here Melinda sits at the comparator examining Pluto images.

A short walk from the museum is a scale model of the solar system, 1 million miles to the inch, culminating in Pluto located at the base of the telescope where it was discovered. Such scale models are interesting demonstrations that space is truly a pretty empty place, with the nearest stars scaled distance out near Los Angeles, CA. Just a short walk up the hill (near the scaled distance of Jupiter, we found a recently installed memorial to Robert Burnham Jr., a Lowell Staffer in the 60s and 70s and author of the classic "Burnham's Celestial handbook". Our friend Jennifer Polakis was instrumental in getting the memorial built and installed this last year, and it was my first time seeing it. Well done Jen!

And after a busy day of driving and touring the local Observatories, what are we to do? Why go off and find some local micro brew beer! We located the Flagstaff Brewing Company in the bustling downtown area, and enjoyed some ales while getting caught up and reacquainted. The next morning Melinda and I headed east towards Meteor Crater, while Anthony and Anita went south to visit Arcosanti. Now gainfully employed Jonathan headed up the hill to his new job at Lowell, after enjoying the Sunday tour with us. But the day was a great time and we made plans to cross paths again - we'll likely see Jonathan at the Grand Canyon Star party in June, and I may get to swing by Anthony and Anita's house during RAGBRAI week in July. Looking forward to it!


Anonymous said...

Dean and Melinda- I continue to enjoy your blog! I once visited Lowell Observatory years ago, around 1997. I remember the planet walk that you mention, and I agree that it really give one a perspective of relative distances between the planets. Reading your blog makes me want to visit Lowell again... ~Ewica~

JAW147 said...

Wonderful article! I couldn't have said it better myself. In fact, I didn't say it better myself. :)

I'll defintely be there to help you at GCSP, but won't be able to do heavy lifting for at least 6 weeks unfortunately.