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The Lowell Observatory is located in Flagstaff, Arizona. It was established in 1894, making it one of the oldest observatories in the United States. In 2011, it was named one of “The World’s 100 Most Important Places” by TIME magazine. The original 61 cm Alvan Clark Telescope, built in 1896, is still used for public education. The observatory is host 80,000 visitors each year. The observatory was founded by Percival Lowell. The current trustee is William Lowell Putnam III, the grandnephew of the founder. The trustee position is historically handed down through the family.
The Lowell Observatory operates several telescopes at two locations in Flagstaff. The main facility, located on Mars Hill houses the original telescope Clark Refracting Telescope and the 13-inch 33 cm telescope used by Clyde Tombaugh to discover the dwarf planet Pluto in 1930. There are four research telescopes at the Anderson Mesa dark sky site including: the 1.8 m Perkins Telescope, the 1.1 m John S. Hall Telescope, and the Navy Prototype Optical Interferometer (NPOI). The 4.28 m Discovery Channel Telescope is also being constructed for operation at the site.
Lowell Observatory astronomers conduct research on a wide range of solar system and astrophysical topics using ground-based, airborne, and space-based telescopes. Among the many current programs are a search for near-Earth asteroids, a survey of the Kuiper Belt, a search for extrasolar planets, a decades-long study of the brightness stability of our Sun, and a variety of investigations of star formation and other processes in distant galaxies. Staff members also build custom instruments for use on Lowell’s telescopes and elsewhere, including a high-speed camera for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).
Many discoveries have been made using the instruments at the Lowell Observatory. Among them are:
- Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930
- Large recessional velocities of galaxies by Vesto Melvin Slipher between 1912 and 1914.
- Co-discovery of the rings of Uranus in 1977.
- The periodic variation in the activity of Comet Halley during 1985/1986.
- The three largest known stars.
- The atmosphere of Pluto.
- Accurate orbits for two Plutonian moons: Nix and Hydra.
- Oxygen on the Jovian moon Ganymede.
- Carbon dioxide ice on three Uranian moons.
- The first Trojan of Neptune.
- Evidence that the atmosphere of HD 209458 b contains water vapor.
We have written many articles about the Lowell Observatory for Universe Today. Here’s an article about Percival Lowell, and here’s an article about the mini-asteroid flyby.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Asteroids. Listen here, Episode 29: Asteroids Make Bad Neighbors.