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Slipher and colleague work to obtain celestial images.

Slipher and colleague work to obtain celestial images.

Beginnings

“Flagstaff. Hurry preparations for dome.”

With this terse telegram, Percival Lowell selected a mesa just west of Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1894 as the site for his new observatory. He spent his first years here drawing what he believed to be canals — evidence of intelligent life on Mars. Today we know Lowell was wrong about that, but he was right that the Solar System extended beyond Neptune. Although he didn’t live to see the discovery of Pluto here in 1930, he did inspire the search for it. That inspiration continues today in our astronomers’ studies of the enigmatic moons of the outer planets and the even-more-distant Kuiper Belt Objects.

Lowell also directed astronomer Vesto M. Slipher to make careful observations of “spiral nebulae” — which we now know to be galaxies — which in 1912 led to the first observational redshifts and evidence that the Universe was expanding.

Key discoveries and research

As a privately owned institution, Lowell Observatory has benefited, from its inception, from owning research-grade facilities. Because Lowell’s astronomers have ongoing, more or less unlimited access to these facilities, they have been able to make some key discoveries. Former director John Hall and his colleagues, for example, made detailed studies of the energy output of stars, while astronomer Harold Johnson created one of the fundamental calibration scales of stellar temperature in the 1950s. The late Henry Giclas, who spent his entire career at Lowell, conducted one of the largest surveys of stellar motions ever done. And, for decades, Wes Lockwood and his colleagues have measured the slowly varying brightnesses of stars like the Sun. These and other research programs are uniquely suited to Lowell — the study of patterns in nature that emerge only gradually, requiring ongoing telescope access and patient lifetimes of observation.

Lowell today

Today, Lowell is a thriving institution with an annual operating budget of more than $6,000,000. Our staff is committed not only to research but also to public outreach and education. We strive to engage the K–12 students in Flagstaff and around Arizona, and the nearby Native American population on the Navajo and Hopi reservations. From our roots on Mars Hill, we’ve grown to span three sites in Arizona and our astronomers maintain collaborations around the world and are regular users of space-based observatories. The Discovery Channel Telescope, commissioned in 2012, elevates Percival Lowell’s vision to another plane in both research and outreach.

 

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