Pluto and me

I fully intended to write a blog post a day while I was away but that just hasn’t happened, due to a combination of being extremely busy and insomnia turning my brain to mushy peas. Anyway, I’m in Phoenix now for 3 nights and its 49 degrees outside, so plenty of time to lounge around writing blog posts! I’m going to start with the highlight of my 2 weeks…the Lowell Observatory.

Ever since I booked my ticket to Spacefest, I knew a visit to the Lowell Observatory was a must and was my main reason for travelling to Flagstaff straight after the conference. Why? Because the Lowell Observatory is where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. Pluto has always had a special place in my heart, from being a child and imagining it being blue to seeing the amazing images the New Horizons spacecraft sent back in 2015. The first ever blog post I wrote was about this and you can read it here

So after a morning at the meteor crater (separate post incoming) we drove up the winding road to Mars Hill above Flagstaff to the Lowell Observatory and after finding the observatory we discovered that we couldn’t get in it due to the last tour of the day already finishing. So after taking some pictures of the outside of the observatory and venting my frustration on Twitter, I decided to come back the next day.

We arrived the next day as the observatory opened. There was no way I was going to miss out again! We were met by a lovely guy named Josh as we arrived, which took me by surprise. He’d seen my disappointed tweets about missing the tours the day before and offered to give me a private tour! I’m not sure my grin could have got any wider!

The Observatory was established in 1894 by astronomer Percival Lowell and houses 2 telescopes: the Clark 24 inch telescope, which is still used as an educational tool and the Pluto Discovery Telescope

We started with a tour of the Rotunda Museum. This building houses the thousands of plates used by the Pluto astrograph. The astrograph is pointed at a small patch of sky and takes pictures of the same patch over a number of nights and then the plates are analysed using the Blink comparator, which is currently on loan to the Smithsonian Museum. There is a replica at the observatory so you can see just what an arduous task this must have. The purpose of the machine was to determine any movement.

Plates were placed at either side to detect any movement

We were shown some original Pluto plates and Pluto was barely visible! It’s a miracle Pluto was ever discovered! These are some of the original plates below! I had to squint to see Pluto, even when it was pointed out to me!
We also got to see Clyde’s original office and his bedroom window.

Then it was onto the main attraction! The building housing the Pluto telescope has been restored in order to preserve it, but it looks as it would have done when Clyde spent many, many hours in there looking at small patches of sky. Josh told us how Clyde would have had to climb up this ladder onto the roof of the observatory to clear snow in the winter.

The little observatory still houses the original motor and I was delighted to have a demonstration! Watching this iconic observatory coming to life before my eyes is something I will never forget.

The astrograph itself contains a series of 3 13 inch lenses which is pretty small considering it discovered the furthest away planets in the solar system! The light from objects in the night sky would have been focussed on to the glass photographic plate and 1 hour exposures taken.  Josh let me move the astrograph myself and it was surprisingly light and easy to move! That was a very special moment for me! I handled the Pluto telescope!

The Pluto Discovery telescope was built specifically to look for the hypothetical Planet X. It took Clyde a year to spot Pluto. Having seen the equipment and conditions Clyde had to contend with I think this is truly miraculous. This was honestly one of the greatest experiences of my whole life. I feel like I’ve completed a circle. From drawing pictures of planets, including Pluto as a little girl and imagining travelling there in my homemade spaceship under the stairs, to staying up for nearly 72 hours watching press conference after press conference as these amazing pictures of this unknown world came back from the New Horizons spacecraft. And now this – visiting the place it all started.One of the speakers at Spacefest said that Clyde was a personal friend of his and Clyde’s wish was that Pluto wasn’t demoted while he or his wife were still alive. His wife was alive when Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet. Seeing how hard Clyde must have worked for hours, days, weeks on end, in all weathers, climbing onto the roof to clear away snow makes me feel so very sad for him. Imagine the greatest achievement of your life being “demoted”. But as Leslie Young of New Horizons said at Spacefest “even dwarf Apple trees are still apple trees”. I wish Clyde could have seen how much Pluto has touched our hearts.

Thank you so much to Josh at the Lowell Observatory for a morning I’ll never forget.

The Pluto telescope needs your help to be maintained. Please donate, it’s so important that Clyde’s work is never forgotten.


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