Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lowell Observatory & Diablo Burger

This morning was reserved for a thunder and lightning experience. This was the kind of thunder that makes the windows shake. Definitely stormier than yesterday. We stayed inside.

We decided it might be a good day to go visit the Lowell Observatory to learn about the telescopes that have been housed there since 1894 (when Flagstaff had far fewer city lights).

The heavy storm had lifted when we left the hotel at about noon.

On the way we decided to have lunch at Diablo Burger, a restaurant recommended by our waitress last night. The beef is sourced from the Diablo Trust ranches just southeast of Flagstaff.

We chose to build our own burgers. Mine had cheddar cheese and grilled onions on it. Dave choose homemade red cabbage sauerkraut and Swiss cheese. The burgers are served on a branded English muffin sitting on top of a pile of rosemary fries. We didn't think we'd be able to eat the whole burger but guess what? After one bite, we both knew it wasn't going to be a problem.

Lowell Observatory is located on Mars Hill, close to our hotel (nothing in Flagstaff is really far away).

After the founder Percival Lowell died in 1916, his wife built this mausoleum. It sits next to the dome that houses the first telescope in his collection, the 24-inch Clark Refracting Telescope, built in Boston for $20,000 and shipped by train to Flagstaff.

Lowell believed the Mars might support life and that was sufficient motivation to dedicate his life to this study. He used this telescope to observe and draw diagrams of what he saw. He discovered lines that looked like canals on Mars. He theorized that they were waterways used for transport.

His chair was designed so he could sit in different position to study the stars and draw his diagrams. Note the tires around the upper wall. These 1950s era truck tires are used to rotate the dome so the opening will line up with the angle of the telescope.

Here's a shot of the Clark telescope.

This same telescope was used by NASA to diagram the craters of the moon before the first space flight. NASA eventually placed another telescope nearby for this purpose, so the astronomers working at Lowell could get back to their work with this telescope.

Here's a close-up view, looking up at it.

There is a smaller starfinder scope attached to the left side. When the lens cover for that disintegrated from age, the astronomer who was working here found that one of his wife's frying pans would work just as well. That frying pan is still used as the lens cover.

The other telescope we saw was the 13-inch Pluto Discovery Telescope. Lowell was convinced that there was a ninth planet, Planet X. He worked on that project as well until he died. After his death, his brother, who was the President of Harvard University, donated the money to buy this telescope in 1929. It's used for photographing the sky.

That square piece of metal at the bottom is a photographic plate. Twenty-three-year-old Clyde Tombaugh, who was not an astronomer but loved astronomy, was hired to do the job the astronomers didn't want to do, which was to sit in this cold room to take photos of the area Lowell had designated as the path of what would become the ninth planet Pluto. During the day he would compare these photos to determine if there was a planet moving through the solar system. By 1930, he had identified a tiny dot that was moving quickly relative to the stars near it. This officially became the planet Pluto (named for the God of the Underworld in a naming contest won by an 11-year-old girl in England).

More recently, however, Pluto has been demoted to dwarf planet status. There are several other bodies like Pluto that orbit around the sun but don't claim their own space. Our major planets dominate their area of the solar system. Because Pluto is so small and low mass, it competes for space with even with its own moon, and its orbit is so elliptic that sometimes it is in front of Neptune relative to the sun and sometimes it is behind.

Telescope work is now mostly done at darker locations nearby. The 19 astronomers working at Lowell Observatory do their daytime studies here and their night observations at the darker locations. Tracking near-earth asteroids is one of the projects they are working on.

Lowell Observatory has partnered with the Discovery Channel to build a telescope right on that road we took to Fossil Creek yesterday. The new Hubble type telescope will be completed in January. We will be able to see the resulting photos of space on the Discovery Channel in about June.

The New Horizons satellite is expected to pass Pluto in 2015 and send back images that will tell scientists a lot more about this dwarf planet.

None of this, however, is terribly interesting to this squirrel who was collecting acorns for winter storage. According to our tour guide there was recently a major territorial sqirmish between one of these Lowell Observatory squirrels and a resident woodpecker over storage in a particular tree.

The weather has turned very cold relative to when we got here last week. After the tour we went to Barnes and Noble to warm up with a cup of hot chocolate. Then we stopped by the Village Baker for a loaf of bread to eat for dinner with the leftovers we'd stashed in our hotel room refrigerator. We are heading back toward California in the morning.


MissM said...

I'm glad you're getting to enjoy flagstaff without a teenager covered in festering sores this time. It looks like a lovely place.

Nancy Oster said...

Yeah, I think you'd like it a lot better now. It's a beautiful interesting city. Too bad you didn't get to see that part.