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Fri, Oct. 18

Out of this world<BR>Flagstaff's Lowell Observatory brings astronomy down to Earth

Courier/Chad Simpson

Visitors are welcome to cruise through the observatory's interactive exhibit hall, left, which features science demonstrations, historic artifacts and information about astronomy. The Morgan Telescope, foreground, used to be a working telescope, until the observatory moved it into the exhibit hall in 1994.

At one point, the astronomers tried floating the dome on water, making it easier to use, but also making for a big mess – the 80-year-old water stains from that effort still are visible. Today, the dome sits on a bunch of 1954-model Ford truck tires, and astronomers use a hand-held switch to move it electronically.

While Lowell used the telescope to search for life on Mars and other pursuits, NASA used it during the 1960s to map out the surface of the moon for the Apollo program. The Clark telescope also discovered the first evidence leading to the Big Bang theory, which suggests that the universe is expanding.

At the far other end of the campus is the triple-lens, 13-inch Pluto Discovery telescope, which astronomers used to discover the planet Pluto in 1930. Unlike the Clark, which is a refracting telescope, the Pluto scope is an astrograph, which takes pictures to study changes in space over time.

Basically, astronomers take one-hour exposures onto glass negatives, which astronomers then compare against each other by using a blink comparator.

Upon the discovery of Pluto, the astronomers issued a nationwide contest to name the new planet. An 11-year-old girl came up with "Pluto," the God of the Underworld, and the astronomers loved it as a name for our solar system's ninth planet, on the edge of deep space, some 4 billion miles from the sun.

Contact Chad Simpson at

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