Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility Strange Goings-on at the Clark Refractor - Lowell Observatory

Strange Goings-on at the Clark Refractor

The 24-inch Clark Refractor has seen its share of bizarre observing nights throughout its 125-year history. Visiting scientist Jim Christy experienced one firsthand, on an evening that include falling bolts and exploding tires. It was back in the 1960s, and the date was Friday the 13th.

Jim Christy was an astronomer who began working at the U.S. Naval Observatory’s Flagstaff Station in 1962. His primary research involved photographing and precisely measuring the positions of binary stars. He occasionally used Lowell Observatory’s Clark Refractor for this work. Most observing sessions were fairly pedestrian. But then came that night that will forever stand out in his mind. Long after his retirement, Jim shared the story with me… 

It was a Friday the 13th in 1963 or 1964. I tried to turn on the WWV radio (which continuously transmitted official time out of Fort Collins, Colorado; this allowed observers to precisely time the length of their exposures) but it didn’t work.  And so I opened up the back and saw there was a wire that came loose.  I put it together and then everything was fine.  

But then, at about 9 o’clock—it was dark—I was moving the telescope. When I stopped, I clamped it then heard a loud ‘boom boom boom boom’.  The telescope started moving, so I had to tie it down with ropes. I found this big bolt on the floor so I climbed up to the telescope mount and was able to find where it fell out, so I put it back in. 

Then, about 11 o’clock, I heard this tremendous bang and the dome actually shook. It turned out one of the tires supporting the dome blew out. My first thought was, ‘Well, at least I don’t have to work anymore tonight in this winter cold.’ I called (Lowell astronomer) Henry Giclas to tell him his dome was ruined and I was going home. Henry told me to wait, that he’d be right up. So Henry came up, looked at the blown tire, and asked me if I had a jack. I happened to have an old Kaiser scissors jack so I got it out of my car and gave it to him. He jacked up the dome, changed the tire and I ‘got’ to work all night, in that freezing cold! And it all happened on Friday the 13th!

— Jim Christy

More than a dozen years after Christy’s memorable astronomical experience, he made headlines with another when he discovered Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. This one was certainly more famous, but that Friday the 13th experience will forever stick with him as one of the most bizarre of his life.