Stargazing at the Lowell Observatory
The overlook on the winding road up to Lowell Observatory on offers an excellent view of Flagstaff, AZ. But it’s a much higher view that most people seek when they head up Mars Hill pass the overlook and drive through the stone pillars at the entrance to the Observatory. On a clear night and with the assistance of the Observatory’s powerful telescopes, visitors are rewarded with a view of the universe that far exceeds anything we can see with the naked eye.
But you can start your day of exploration at the Lowell Observatory long before the sun sets. And the Discover the Universe exhibition hall on the first floor of the Steele Visitor’s is a good place to begin.
The interactive exhibits are interesting and fun for both children and adults and a great introduction to basic astronomy and planetary science. This is a great place to spend time especially if you’re accompanied by young learners. My two ten year old traveling companions loved the hands-on exhibits so much that I had to pull them away to begin one of the two tours we joined.
In the center’s lobby is a deceptively small looking 535 pound meteorite which had been on display at the Grand Canyon for a century. If you’re short on time, you can take a self-guided tour. However, the best way to learn about the Observatory’s 100 history and the work currently being conducted there is to watch the multimedia shows in the auditorium and take the tours led by Observatory astronomers.
As we left the visitor center lobby for our Pluto Walk tour, we walked past an old 42-inch reflecting telescope used in early research at the Observatory. Along the Pluto Walk are signs with facts about the sun and each of the planets along with bronze markers embedded into the sidewalk showing the planets’ relative distance from each other. Although reading the specific details about each planet was interesting (diameter, distance from the sun, rotation period, revolution period and number of moons), what helped me most of all was being able to get some sense of the enormity of the solar system. Even my ten year old companions, one of whom had studied the solar system in the just completed school year, listened intently to the guide.
The 350 foot (108 meter) path leads up to the Pluto Dome which houses the Pluto Discovery Telescope used by Clyde Tombaugh to verify Lowell’s calculations about the existence of the ninth planet.
We climbed the narrow stairway to get an upclose look at the telescope, heard about how Lowell worked long hours peering through the telescope in the unheated building and how Pluto was definitively photographed on February 18, 1930 but kept secret for a full month so the discovery could be announced on Lowell’s 75th birthday on March 13, 1930.
We also learned that in 2001 Flagstaff became the world’s first “International Dark Sky City”, a recognition awarded to the few cities that have demonstrated success in raising awareness of light pollution as it affects astronomy and the public. Multi-faceted city efforts include replacing all up-directed flag lighting with pole-mounted fully shielded fixtures to focus light downward to improve night viewing of stars and planets.
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