As I peered into the high-powered telescope, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was hard to fathom that I was actually staring at Saturn, rings and all. It looked exactly like the pics in textbooks and how the media depicts the planet. And the fact that I was viewing it so clearly from some 889 million miles away made it even more surreal.
I’ve seen stars through telescopes before, but never a planet. This memorable experience was courtesy of Lowell Observatory. Located in Flagstaff, AZ, Lowell is one of the top observatories in the country and a major attraction for anyone with even the remotest interest in astronomy. Established in 1894, it’s also among the oldest observatories in the U.S. and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965.
Visitors can tour this wondrous destination and come away with an appreciation for the researchers and scientists who have devoted their lives to investigating and solving the mysteries of the universe.
It's hard not to be amazed once you see all the high-tech equipment on display and hear about the major discoveries made at this significant site over the past 128 years. On a guided historic tour, you’ll hear about the observatory’s colorful founder, Percival Lowell. A talented writer and orator from a wealthy Boston family, Lowell popularized the idea of intelligent life on Mars and stimulated the imaginations of such sci-fi, adventure authors as H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs. He predicted the existence of a planet beyond the orbit of Neptune and initiated the search that ended in the discovery of Pluto.
Lowell established the observatory as a place where he could pursue his quest for exploration. And Flagstaff proved to be the ideal location. Back then, Arizona was still a territory and Flagstaff was a small, lumber community. There was no pollution and the site chosen for the observatory sat on a hilltop with an expansive view of the landscape. Pristine dark skies were and still are the norm here. In fact, Flagstaff has the distinction of being named the world’s first International Dark Sky City. This designation, which it received in 2001, is earned by communities that commit to preserving dark skies in policy and in practice.
You’ll find that Lowell’s presence is still felt on the observatory campus. His first telescope, which his mother gave him when he turned fifteen, is on display and visitors can view through his renowned 24” Clark Refractor. Built in 1896, it’s still in use today. This is the famed telescope that helped scientists study the surface of Mars, discover the first evidence or our universe’s expansion and map the Moon for the Apollo missions. Lowell is even buried on site, in a Saturn-shaped, domed mausoleum.
Another tour delves into the story of Pluto, where you’ll be regaled with stories of the observatory’s searches for “Planet X.” This ninth planet, which was subsequently named Pluto, was eventually discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, fourteen years after Lowell’s death.
At the time, Tombaugh was a 24-year-old farm boy from Kansas with no college education, who was working at Lowell initially as an unpaid intern. After this major feat, Tombaugh went on to discover hundreds of asteroids, receive multiple degrees in astronomy and teach at New Mexico State University. In 1980, he was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame.
During this tour, you’ll visit the Pluto Discover Telescope, the instrument utilized to image the star fields that contained Pluto. And you’ll learn how it got its name, as well as why its planetary status is still an ongoing debate.
When Tombaugh made his discovery, the word went out around the world and people across the globe sent in their suggestions for a name for the planet. But it was eleven-year-old Venetia Burney, from England, who came up with the winning idea. She thought that Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld, was a fitting name for the darkest and most distant planet.
As for the debate about Pluto’s planetary status, some scientists firmly attest that Pluto is a dwarf planet and have declassified it as such in 2006; others, continue to strongly assert that it is a true planet.
Make sure you stop in the Rotunda Museum to see noteworthy items like Lowell’s above mentioned first telescope, the blink comparator Tombaugh used to discover Pluto, a beautiful stained glass Saturn lamp hanging from the ceiling and the OmniGlobe. The latter is a four-foot-diameter, interactive sphere intended for use as a visualization tool. Employing HD projector laser technology, the OmniGlobe is capable of displaying a variety of images and planetary concepts in a spectacular, multi-hued presentation. Visitors can play around with its capabilities and elicit oohs and aahs from others as they watch the orb go through its transformations.
The guides take pride in showcasing the observatory and dispense knowledge in an entertaining manner and easy-to-grasp mode. You don’t even need to be an amateur astronomer to understand the crux of the content or appreciate the magnitude of the accomplishments. This was part of Percival Lowell’s plan all along, as he wanted to make the observatory accessible to the public.
In addition to the tours, there are exhibits and hands on science demos, and daily science talks. At one of the demonstrations, for example, staff walked participants through a number of experiments to illustrate the principles of gravity, energy and relativity. At the “Colors of the Cosmos Science Show,” educators revealed secrets of the cosmos by playing with light, rainbows and fire via a series of different tests. And during the “Journey to Pluto Science Show,” the audience got to imagine a space expedition to this forbidding, cold little rock of a planet, complete with all the challenges such an undertaking presents.
If you visit Lowell during the day, make sure to use your ticket to return in the evening for a chance to use the telescopes at the Giovale Open Deck Observatory and marvel at the night sky in all its glory. This is when the real magic occurs and the awe factor heightens with views of star clusters, galaxies, planets and the moon, weather permitting.
Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries spanning all seven continents, and her stories appear in numerous print and digital publications.