The center of the universe, when it comes to Astronomy, is, for many, right here in Flagstaff. In 1894, a wealthy Bostonian and Harvard cum laude mathematics graduate, Percival Lowell, founded the Lowell Observatory. Percival came from an aristocratic family. His brother Abbot was a legal scholar who held the position of the 22nd President of Harvard University for twenty-four years. Their sister Amy was an American poet awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1926, one year after her death. Sister Elizabeth Lowell Putnam—a philanthropist and prenatal care advocate—founded the William Lowell Putnam Intercollegiate Memorial Fund. This college-level mathematics competition began in 1935 and continues to this day. During his mathematics studies, Percival was exposed to astronomy and astrophysics, becoming interested in various theories about the universe. At his college graduation, Percival gave a speech—deemed extremely advanced for its time—on the formation of the solar system.
Fascinated by then-current theories about life and canals on Mars, Percival set out to find the perfect location to continue researching the subject. Concerned about air pollution problems surrounding major cities and challenges created by light pollution, Percival theorized that the Arizona Territory—with its dry, clean air—might offer the solution he was seeking. With a small telescope in tow, A.E. Douglass—an astronomer and scout hired by Percival—set out to find the perfect location and hit pay dirt in 1894.
It was there, atop a mesa about a mile from downtown Flagstaff—the site that is now as Mars Hill—Percival chose to build his observatory. It was here that he would establish his destiny, as well as his reputation. The Lowell became the first major high-altitude observatory in the world, deliberately placed in a secluded and elevated location for ideal planetary observation. The creation of Lowell Observatory has led to Flagstaff being named the world’s first International Dark Sky City. The Lowell’s list of achievements is fantastic, and Percival Lowell was instrumental in raising worldwide interest in astronomy.
Although Percival did not originate the theory of canals on Mars—and because his studies of the planet Venus are far less exemplified—his name is inexorably linked with the notion. Percival Lowell built an observatory. He ordered and installed leading-edge scientific equipment. Percival hired enthusiastic and talented staff and publicized his theories and results with books and lectures. H. G. Wells used Percival’s work as the theme for his 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds. Among his honors, Percival Lowell was named an Elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1892. In 1904, he was awarded the Prix Jules Janssen—the highest award of the Société astronomique de France, or French Astronomical Society—and the Mexican Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal. The observatory has been recognized as a Registered National Historic Landmark, an official Arizona Treasure, and was named one of the “World’s 100 Most Important Places” by Time Magazine.
Amidst all said accomplishments, Percival also generated theories about what he called, “Planet X.” Presumed to exist beyond planet Neptune—in the far reaches of the solar system—this became one of his landmark projects and subsequently one of his greatest achievements. For his search for “Planet X,” special equipment was designed and fabricated. Purpose-built facilities were added at the Lowell Observatory to house the equipment, and top-notch researchers were brought on board to carry out the quest. Percival spent the last decade of his life dedicated to “Planet X.” It would take until 1916, fourteen years following Percival’s death, that “Planet X” would be realized.
In 1929, a young researcher named Clyde Tombaugh was hired to carry on the tedious work needed to locate the mysterious object on the fringes of our piece of the universe. On February 18, 1930, he succeeded in finding the elusive body, the first object discovered in the Kuiper Belt. A contest was held to name it. The winner—an 11-year-old girl from England—suggested the name Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld. While it may be the best-known achievement of the observatory, it is far from its only game-changing discovery. Tombaugh, alone, is credited with discovering 15 asteroids and observing nearly 800 more while searching for Pluto and his following research. He also discovered hundreds of variable stars, star clusters, galaxy clusters, and a galaxy supercluster. And, a little trivia for baseball fans, it should be noted that he is the great-uncle of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw.
Theoretical discovery and proof of our expanding universe were established at Lowell. Also discovered was the detection of spiral galaxies and their rotation. The rings of Uranus were first observed here, as was the atmosphere of Pluto, which, like Earth, includes a large percentage of nitrogen. Therefore, Pluto has, presumably, blue skies as we do.
The Lowell has witnessed the training of the Apollo astronauts, and the original moon maps were prepared here in the 1960s. Lowell Observatory continues to lead and collaborate on significant research with research centers and universities from around the world, as well as hosting numerous youth and special camps. The fifth-largest telescope in the contiguous United States, the Discovery Channel Telescope, is housed at Lowell—named in honor of the station’s owners gracious 16 million dollar gift. Astronaut Neil Armstrong spoke at the telescope’s dedication in July 2012—his last public appearance before his passing in August of that year. A new addition to the Lowell experience is the Giovale Open Deck Observatory. With its six modern telescopes, visitors are provided an excellent celestial viewing experience each evening. The area also features frequent daytime exhibits. The Lowell is a must-see destination. Visit the place where remarkable, historic discoveries originated. See the telescopes and critical equipment used in those early discoveries and view the heavens through those lenses.
The observatory offers numerous daytime and evening programs, open houses, guided tours, lectures, and demonstrations. There’s also a chance to walk the grounds and see a curated array of the region’s plant and animal life. A particular favorite is a walk up the hill behind the Visitor Center to the Pluto Discovery Telescope. It includes displays illustrating the distances between each of the planets and their distances from the sun. It helps demonstrate the scale of the distances involved. Make your way to the Lowell Observatory and tip your hat to the man who brought the center of the universe to Flagstaff, Arizona. Percival Lowell rests eternally on Mars Hill, forever looking up to and blanketed by his beloved stars and skies.
“The Lowell became the first major high-altitude observatory in the world, deliberately placed in a secluded and elevated location for ideal planetary observation. The creation of Lowell Observatory has led to Flagstaff being named the world’s first International Dark Sky City."
Story written by: Tom Pitts Photos Provided by: The Lowell Observatory