What Travel Writers Say

Alas poor Pluto...

© By Pat Brennan
  It was a sad day in this Arizona town when Pluto's status as a planet fell out of orbit. Last year the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto from a planet to nothing more than a large snowball hurtling through the cosmos. Flagstaff is Pluto's home town.
     Late one night in 1930 up on top of Mars Hill on the west edge of town Pluto was born when an astronomer discovered it while peering through a huge telescope at the Lowell Observatory.
     You too can search for heavenly bodies while visiting the Lowell Observatory, the source of many of the fascinating facts we know today about our solar system and beyond. On public tours of the observatory you can look at - and look through - the huge 24-inch Clark Refractor that astronomer Clyde Tombaugh used to detect Pluto in 1930.
     Percival Lowell, a wealthy Bostonian and amateur astronomer, built his private observatory in 1894 on a hill just outside the small railway town of Flagstaff, where fewer than 1,000 people lived. That site was chosen because of the clean, crisp air 7,300 feet above sea level in northern Arizona, it's mostly cloudless nights and the minimal disturbance of city lights.
     Although Flagstaff has grown to more than 52,000 people it has strict bylaws about night-time lighting that reduce light reflection into the night sky. It was the first city in the world to pass a "dark sky" ordinance. The U.S. Naval Observatory is also located just west of town.


     Percival hired professional astronomers to work at his observatory and today more than 20 astronomers do cosmic research at the site, which is dotted with several telescope domes. The pros tolerated Percival's amateurish speculations. He loved studying Mars - thus the name Mars Hill - and he believed Mars was a dying planet where the residents had dug many canals to bring precious water to their farms and cities.
     Percival also speculated there is a huge Planet X in a certain area of the sky because something was wobbling Uranus and Neptune. He died in 1916 without finding his Planet X. But about 10 years later astronomer Tombaugh used Percival's calculations to search an area of the cosmos where Percival believed Planet X was hiding.
     Tombaugh found Pluto in that same area. There was quite a debate on what to call the new planet, which was the 9th and furthest from the sun. The other planets, other than earth, are named after Roman gods. Pluto, the god of the underworld, was chosen because Pluto the god was able to go invisible. And its short form - PL - are the initials of Percival Lowell.
     Pluto is the only planet discovered by an observer outside of Europe.
     That same 24-inch telescope (that's the width of the mirror in the 32-foot-long telescope) was used by astronomer V.M Slipher in 1912 to show that the universe is still expanding. Slipher used the telescope to photograph the night sky for 20 hours over three nights, concentrating on "the great spiral nebula in the constellation Andromeda." His photographs and measurements of galactic red shifts were used by astronomer Edwin Hubble finally to persuade his fellow astronomers that the universe is still expanding.


     Before heading to the moon, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin came to the Lowell Observatory to use the Clark Refractor telescope for a close up look of the lunar neighbourhood where they proposed to land.
     Percival Lowell rests right beside the Clark telescope in mausoleum shaped like a telescopic dome. Your tour of the hilltop campus ($6 for adults, $5 for seniors and students) includes Lowell's library which is now a museum. It contains the first photographs of Pluto, which is merely a tiny white dot in a sea of white dots in the night sky. Fortunately an arrow points to Pluto and shows how it was detected by being in a different location in different photographs.
     For those who stand in awe of the night sky, the Lowell Observatory and its tour guides can tell you a lot about what you are looking at. And someday soon you'll be able to do that in the comfort of your home's TV room. Lowell and the Discovery Channel are in the midst of building a $35 million telescope with a 160-inch mirror, operational in 2009. This telescope will be located about 40 miles from the Lowell campus in a national forest to escape any city lights. What they see through the telescope will be broadcast on the Discovery Channel.

Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years.

Photo Credits
Arizona Office of Tourism
Lowell Observatory

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Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flagstaff,_Arizona
Flagstaff Convention & Visitors Bureau: http://www.flagstaffarizona.org/

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