It has been a long day for us. We drove out of Zion National Park in Springdale, Utah in the morning, we were at Lower Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend in Page Arizona by noon, and at Wupatki National Monument and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument in Flagstaff, Arizona the rest of the day. We are finally heading to our hotel to rest at last!
Or so we thought until we realized that Flagstaff is the home of the Lowell Observatory where Pluto was discovered! Despite our tired feet and empty stomachs, we decided that our day was not over yet and went to visit Lowell Observatory. Yes, we deferred dinner to see the birthplace of Pluto. Food can wait, Pluto can’t. Besides, we love astronomy. Who doesn’t?
The Lowell Observatory was founded in Flagstaff in 1894 by astronomer Percival Lowell for his research on planet Mars. Percival Lowell picked Flagstaff for his observatory believing that the high altitude and thin atmosphere would be ideal for observing the planet Mars. However, in 1916, Percival died and his brother – Harvard University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell – took over the estate and then funded the construction of a telescope (now called the Pluto Discovery Telescope) and a dome. When the construction was completed, the Observatory hired a Kansas farm boy named Clyde Tombaugh who later discovered Pluto.
The process was not easy. Amateur astronomer Clyde Tombaugh would photograph the same part of sky for several days apart and then use a Zeiss Blink Comparator to detect the motion of a nearby planet against the more distant “fixed” stars. It is closely similar to the spot-the-difference puzzle that we are all familiar with.
OLD LIBRARY AND LECTURE
Our night started with a lecture about space inside the observatory’s old Rotunda Library. The Rotunda Library which was originally built by Lowell to house his book collection, now displays exhibits showing the history of the observatory. The camera that was used on the 24-inch Clark telescope to photograph Mars, Mercury, Venus and Jupiter was on display, even one of the original photographic plates. It was so surreal and yet a feeling of honor to be sitting inside the historic library listening to astronomers lecture about the vastness and the mysteries of space. I was also anxious to see and touch the huge telescopes that made a mark in our history!
This is the part where my husband and I got the most excited. Lowell Observatory boasts several research and education telescopes. During our visit, we saw Lowell’s original research instrument, the 24-inch refracting telescope which was designed and built by Alvan Clark and Sons which is used today only for public education. They opened the dome and the telescope rotated on automobile tires. It was a very inspiring moment. It evoked my childhood dream of becoming an astronaut or an astronomer myself.
Shortly after, we went to The Abbot L. Lowell Astrograph or the Pluto Discovery Telescope which is the the historic 13-inch telescope used by Clyde Tombaugh to discover Pluto in 1930. This telescope now serves educational purposes only.
Lowell Observatory asked the public to name the new member of the solar system and the suggestions poured in. Pluto got its name from an 11-year-old Venetia Burney of Oxford, England, who suggested to her grandfather that the new world get its name from the Roman god of the underworld.
IS PLUTO A PLANET OR NOT?
Lowell Observatory was designated as National Historic Landmark in 1965. In 2006 the International Astronomical Union voted to remove Pluto’s status as a planet after further research showed its composition and orbit are too different from the other planets. However, early this year (2017) the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the body that is responsible for naming and classifying objects in the cosmos, has just announced that Pluto has been reclassified as a major planet.
It’s been a long and wonderful day. Planet or not, I now feel intimately closer to the stars (or planets!!).