How Observatories Give the Sky to Earth

You don’t notice the city below as you drive the twisting road that climbs Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s nine o’clock at night with a moon nearly full, and the road looks a little bit like it might lead to a horror movie cabin in the woods. If you didn’t know where you were driving, imagine the weirdness of the scene. The crazy noodle road that winds through movie theater darkness. You reach the summit of the little mountain, and here’s this... museum? Open in the middle of the night? It’s a little unnerving.

The parking lot is lit but barely, leaving the snow at its boundaries the color of macaroni and cheese. Even inside the lobby, the lighting seems low (or maybe it’s just your eyes). There’s an auditorium here, and a small, curated exhibit on asteroids. To your immediate left, though, is a gift shop where you also buy admission. Taking in the full scene, if the staff member behind the register said, “We’ve been expecting you, Mr. Brown” I’d have turned and run away, checking for zombies at my back. But those are first impressions. Of course this place is remote, on a mountaintop, and open at night. It has to be! It’s in the business of looking at the stars—it’s an astronomical observatory.

The Lowell Observatory was built in 1894 by Percival Lowell of Boston. (Also happened that year: Coca-Cola was first bottled and a patent was granted for something called a “motion picture.”) Lowell the man was a mathematician and scholar, a world traveler who studied Japanese culture and wrote monographs on what he saw. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, he devoted himself to the study of the planet Mars, and to that end, decided to build a telescope. He chose for this project the distant hamlet of Flagstaff, not even a village in those days, but boundless with opportunity for astronomical study, with its big open skies and cloudless nights.

In addition to his Mars work, Lowell was a proponent of the theory of Planet X, which said that something out there was pulling on Neptune and Uranus, and that it was almost certainly a planet. He searched in vain for this lost world, and brought in other telescopes, but it wasn’t until 1930 that this ninth planet was finally found by an astronomer named Clyde Tombaugh. Though Percival Lowell was long dead by then, his association with Planet X would be his legacy, as Pluto (note the letters P and L) was discovered at the very observatory he built.

The Milky Way  (Credit:  Kevin Baird )

The Milky Way (Credit: Kevin Baird)

If you don’t live in a Flagstaff or somewhere like it, you might possibly have never seen the night sky. I was in my late twenties before I had any idea that you could actually see the Milky Way from Earth. I found the galaxy by accident, driving one night through Tongariro National Park in New Zealand. Even if you’ve never heard of Tongariro, you’ve almost certainly seen it before: it was the setting of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings films. There were no lights around, and for whatever reason my traveling companions and I stopped to chat, and I looked up and was gobsmacked by what I saw. It was so vivid, so colorful, so many blues and greens, teals, whites. It was space as seen only in movies! It was like Stellar Cartography on the Starship Enterprise!

Light pollution washes out the sky in so many places, towns and cities big and small, and as a consequence, generations have come and gone without understanding the fuss about space. For most of us, space is as theoretical as the inside of an atom. We’ve seen astrophotography and imagery from spacecraft, but however much we might know it to be true rationally, on an emotional level our primitive brains can’t cope. We are here and it is there.

Which is where such observatories as Lowell come in. Today the observatory on Mars Hill is alive and open to the public. In every building are astronomers playing host to the cosmos, explaining, beguiling. On its grounds is the Lowell Mausoleum, where the man himself forever guards his bequest. A rotunda museum, once the facility’s science library, houses artifacts from the observatory’s history. There are three operational telescopes there, and yet no research is conducted with them. (Those facilities are located on Anderson Mesa, a few miles away.) The purpose of the telescopes is to give us back the galaxy. You can see a picture of Saturn’s rings and feel nothing, but see Saturn’s rings with your own eyes, and suddenly you feel the Earth spinning on its axis and flying about the Sun. Suddenly, it hits you: space is real, and it isn’t some place out there. We’re part of it, one sphere of many circling just another star, which is itself as commonplace as a grain of sand.

Lowell is unique for many reasons, but none more than the Pluto Telescope Dome, the stubby tower from which Clyde Tombaugh toiled and triumphed. Today the telescope itself is off for refurbishment, but the moonlit dome beckons all the same.* You approach it, and it’s freezing outside and snow and trees are everywhere, piled high and reaching for the sky, and when you get there, you feel the connection, only this time it’s human rather than astronomical. I touched the door and door frame and the stones adjacent comprising the wall. At some point, I reasoned, Tombaugh would have touched the same places walking in and out of the building night after night. I just wanted to feel that connection through time—it’s that kind of place, the observatory.

It draws you in, this place where discovery is possible, where science is breathed, where space is an arm’s length away—and it descends on you, envelops you. I was alone there that night, and I’m sensitive by nature, but even the most hardened among us, ages spanning the full breadth of the Sphinx Riddle, must feel it, because observatories, these monuments to wonder, dot the landscape from sea to sea and around the world. Some are tiny: a plot of land where amateurs haul out their Celestrons, and some are massive, the Grand Canary Telescope, that colossus bestride a volcano. Each is as important as the other to the extent that they are the conduits between the universe and the creatures of the Earth. We long to see the sky, to see the infinite, and Lowell, beautiful Lowell, creepy Lowell, reminds us that we can do more than wonder. We can discover.

On the drive away from the facility, down the hill with its twists and meanders, there is an overlook of the city of Flagstaff below. Cars are parked, a half dozen, their passengers taking it all in. It’s beautiful, this tiny, giant town, sprawled beneath a sky that is ours.

* The telescope has since been refurbished and returned to Lowell.