Clark Open House
By 7:30pm - Close
Included with General Admission
The Clark Refractor is one of the most storied telescopes in the world, an important piece of scientific, cultural, and American history. Percival Lowell famously used it in his controversial studies of Mars, research that Lowell openly shared with the general public as well as the scientific community. While scientists took opposing views of Lowell’s theories of intelligent life on Mars, the public devoured his ideas. Lowell soon built a cultural consciousness of Martian life, so that to many people, such extraterrestrial intelligence was a foregone conclusion. This idea found its way into the minds of writers, where the developing genre of science fiction incorporated some of Lowell’s ideas.
One of Lowell’s hired astronomers was E.C. Slipher, who observed and photographed Mars decades after Lowell’s death in 1916. Slipher earned the reputation as one of the world’s leading Mars experts. Like Lowell, Slipher also entered into the realm of pop culture, albeit in a much quieter tone. When Walt Disney produced a Tomorrowland television show about Mars in the 1950s, Slipher was one of the featured scientists.
Slipher’s older brother, V.M., made the most important scientific discovery with the Clark, one that helped lead to a fundamental shift in astronomers’ understanding of the age and size of the universe. V.M.’s observations of the so-called white nebulae—known today to be spiral galaxies—involved imaging spectra with exposure times sometimes exceeding an unheard-of 40 hours. He determined these bodies to be moving at incredible speeds, mostly in the opposite direction. His observations proved revolutionary, both in terms of the technique of data collection and results, and served as the first evidence of the expanding nature of the universe.
Progressive research with the Clark continued into the 1960s, when scientists and artists combined their talents to create detailed maps of the Moon. These were critical to understanding the physical characteristics of the lunar surface and were used in support of the Apollo astronauts’ journeys to the Moon. Not only that, but as part of their training, several of the moonwalkers peered through the Clark to familiarize themselves with craters and other lunar features.
The exploration of Mars, the Moon, and the expanding universe is just part of the Clark’s story. It also played an important role in building public awareness and excitement about space, from the casual, walk-in visitor to educational programming by the likes of Walt Disney, Carl Sagan, and Bill Nye the Science Guy.
The story of the Clark is also the story of Lowell Observatory itself, a sort of three-legged stool balanced on science, outreach, and history. Nothing captures this essence better than the Clark, whose history of research and public awareness is as unique as the structure that houses the telescope.
From its first use on July 23, 1896 and into the 21st century, the Clark Refractor saw heavy use. First for science and then for public education, the facility was open on most clear nights. Then there were the millions of feet that wore down the Ponderosa pine flooring for daytime tours.
By 2013, the instrument and its dome were in danger of permanent damage if corrective measures weren’t taken, so Lowell Observatory undertook a fundraising campaign to support a complete renovation of the facility.
Led by major donations from philanthropists Joe Orr and the Toomey Foundation for the Natural Sciences, an online crowdfunding effort, support from the City of Flagstaff and Flagstaff Arts Council, and contributions from a variety of groups and individuals, the observatory raised nearly $300,000 to complete the work.
With this money in hand, the Lowell undertook a 20-month-long renovation project, running from January 2014 through August 2015. Led by Lowell’s Director of Technical Services Ralph Nye, a renovation team examined every part of the telescope and dome, down to the nuts and bolts. They worked with the mindset of ensuring all parts would again work properly while preserving as many of the historical components as possible. In some cases they fabricated new parts to replace broken or worn-out ones but in general, they were able to repair, clean, and reuse the majority of historic elements.
Their overall goal was two-fold: return the facility to proper working order and turn both the telescope and dome into stunning visual showpieces. Using a crane, the team dramatically removed the entire telescope and mount, in segments, through the roof of the dome, repaired or replaced components as needed, and reassembled the instrument in the dome.
The team replaced the bearing wheel, stripped paint, scraped rust, cleaned lenses, weatherized and strengthened the dome, and re-landscaped the surrounding grounds. The result: an exquisite scientific display that also works better than ever.
See The Far End of the Journey: Lowell Observatory’s 24-inch Clark Telescope for stunning images and more of the renovation story.