At this writing, I'm in Flagstaff, Ariz., visiting family. Since Flagstaff is also the world's first international dark sky city and home to Lowell Observatory, I made a pilgrimage to the top of Mars Hill, where Percival Lowell, member of a prominent Boston family (the town of Lowell, Mass., is named for them), built his astronomical kingdom almost 20 years before Arizona became a state.
Lowell established his observatory in 1894 to search for life on Mars. Although his search proved fruitless, future astronomers at the observatory would develop the notion of an expanding universe and present the Big Bang theory. Perhaps most famously, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930 after being hired at Lowell Observatory to assist in the search for a mysterious Planet X that many believed to exist.
After months of studying plates produced by Lowell's 13-inch astrograph (a telescope without an eyepiece used solely to produce photographs of the sky), he noticed an extremely faint "star" that was moving opposite all of the other stars - Planet X, an unimaginably cold, desolate place ultimately named Pluto, after the Greek god of the underworld.
Officials at the International Astronomical Union voted Pluto off the island in 2006 and demoted it to dwarf planet status, but this official move has been largely shunned, and enthusiasts still insist upon Pluto's planethood. Lowell Observatory celebrates its discovery as prominently as it always has. Take that, IAU.
My cousin Ashley and I braved Arizona's monsoon season to visit the observatory last Monday. Arizona has about 300 days of clear sunshine, and those 60 or so other days are in July and August. Instead of steady, blue skies, Arizonans are subjected to fits of rain coupled with spectacular and intense thunderstorms and bolts of lightning touching down like fiery snake tongues from the heavens. Flagstaff, at an elevation of about a mile and a half, bears the brunt of these odd weather patterns.
Lowell is a private, non-profit observatory run by a trust. The government, the military and academia aren't involved in decisions about its operation, although Lowell does partner with universities around the country to provide use of its instruments. Lowell operates through public funding and donations, resulting in a very public-oriented experience. In return, Flagstaff enacts strict light ordinances to keep the sky as dark as possible so Lowell can do its thing.
Monday nights in July and August, Lowell hosts a visiting astronomer. The night of our visit, the featured guest was Dr. Gerard van Belle, who recently discovered that not all stars are round. Because of their rapid rotation, he learned, some stars' "equators" bulge outward due to centrifugal force.
Dr. van Belle also discovered that these stars display different colors depending on the angle at which they are studied. When observed at their poles, the stars appear blue - hotter. When observed them from their sides, they appear redder - cooler.
Dr. van Belle told me he is studying other aspects of stars as well, including the likelihood that many stars have a planet or other object orbiting them. Based on stars' formation, he said, matter that was ejected from a star during its violent birth often gets pulled into rotation around its parent star.
Weather permitting, Lowell opens its telescopes to the public for evening viewing sessions. An 8-inch-wide Schmidt-Cassegrain scope was set up on the sidewalk and aimed at Saturn, while a few feet away, a 16-inch-wide refracting scope was trained on the nearly full moon, showing viewers incredible details and shadows on its surface.
The night's highlight was the view through Lowell's 16-inch McAllister telescope. It was trained on the Ring Nebula, a planetary nebula 3,200 light years away. The ring is a shell of ionized gas expelled by a red giant star, the last stage in a star's life before it becomes a white dwarf.
The young docent running the scope said he considers the Ring Nebula "a view into both the past and the future," since the light hitting us as the view of a hazy, grayish ring is more than 3,000 years old, but our own sun will look the same when it dies 5 billion years from now.
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