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View from Mars Hill: 125 years and counting — the 24-inch Clark Telescope

Photo: Ralph Nye led the restoration project of the 24-inch Clark Telescope that Percival Lowell used to map the surface of Mars. The telescope was also used to make maps of the moon for Apollo astronauts. | Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun

By Kevin Schindler

As published on the Arizona Daily Sun website on May 8, 2021

Perhaps no part of the Flagstaff skyline, save for the majestic San Francisco Peaks, is as iconic — or timeless — as Lowell Observatory’s Clark Telescope dome. It is a beacon for residents and visitors alike, sitting atop Mars Hill in full view of downtown and surrounding areas.

It was built just 15 years after the community was incorporated and 15 years before Arizona became a state. For more than half of the entire span of the Unites States’ existence as a sovereign nation it has stood, through 23 American presidents, 27 New York Yankees world championships, the development of nuclear power, and humans walking on another world. Through all this the Clark dome has endured, an unwavering symbol of exploration and discovery.

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the Clark’s opening. In celebration, here are a dozen facts that illustrate the scientific, cultural and historic importance of this cherished heirloom:

  1. Percival Lowell paid $20,000 for the telescope in 1896, half the cost of the mausoleum his widow built for him when he died in 1916.
  2. While Lowell’s Mars observations, supporting his compelling theory about life on the Red Planet, are perhaps the most famous research carried out with the Clark, the most influential to the science of astronomy was V.M. Slipher’s detection of the expanding nature of the universe.
  3. In the first season of the popular TV show The Big Bang Theory, a poster of the Clark Telescope, with Lowell astronomer Leonard Martin standing nearby, hangs on a door in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment.
  4. In 1966, the National Park Service designated Lowell Observatory as a registered National Historic Landmark, with the Clark serving as the centerpiece of the celebration. A dedication plaque still sits directly in front of the dome.
  5. In 1939, War Department engineers calculated the elevation of the Clark dome, from its second entryway step, to be 7,246.43 feet.
  6. The top, rotating portion of the dome was designed by Godfrey Sykes, great-granduncle of popular modern author Diana Gabaldon. Sykes led the dome’s construction in the fall of 1896 at an empty lot next to his home in Flagstaff, at the corner of Dale and Humphreys streets.
  7. Some famous visitors to the Clark through the years include three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sandburg, First Lady Hillary Clinton, writer Zane Grey, newspaperman William Randolph Hearst, and Queen guitarist/astrophysicist Brian May.
  8. For several years around the turn of the 20th century, the dome rotated on a system of pontoons floating in a trough of salt water. It now rotates on a set of Ford tires.
  9. In support of the Apollo Moon program in the 1960s, artists working with scientists used the Clark to created detailed maps of the lunar surface.
  10. In 1963, the “Next Nine” group of astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and Tucson native Frank Borman, visited Lowell Observatory as part of their training in northern Arizona. In the evening, the group split up for telescope viewing at either Lowell, Northern Arizona University, or the US Navy Observatory Flagstaff Station. Those staying at Lowell and viewing through the Clark included Ed White (who later became the first American to walk in space), Jim McDivitt (who commanded White’s moon-walk flight) and Elliott See (who died in a plane crash before ever going into space).
  11. For several months during 1896-97, the Clark was mounted at a site in Mexico to observe a close approach of Mars. After the telescope’s return in April 1897, it wasn’t moved again until a renovation project began in 2014.
  12. The Clark has been featured in numerous educational documentaries, including a 1957 Mars-themed episode of Disneyland, Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos series, and Bill Nye the Science Guy.

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Beginning May 15, Lowell Observatory is celebrating the Clark Telescope with a series of free, monthly virtual programs highlighting its scientific, cultural, and historic significance!  

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