Lowell Observatory’s iconic Clark Telescope is returning to action after a 20-month renovation project. In early September, the instrument and dome that has punctuated Flagstaff’s skyline since 1896 became available for public daytime tours. Next month, the telescope will be back in full operation as nighttime viewing commences.
The Clark had been a mainstay of the visitor experience to Lowell for decades, but the continual heavy use wore its parts out. By 2013, the instrument was in danger of permanent damage if corrective measures were not taken, so the Observatory began a fundraising campaign to support a complete renovation of the telescope and the dome.
Led by major donations from philanthropists Joe Orr and the Toomey Foundation for the Natural Sciences, an online crowdfunding effort, support from the City of Flagstaff and Flagstaff Arts Council and contributions from a variety of groups and individuals, the Observatory raised nearly $300,000 to complete the work.
“The Clark was in desperate need of repair and the community at large really came together to support this project,” said Lowell’s Outreach Manager Samantha Christensen.
Led by Lowell’s Director of Technical Services Ralph Nye, a renovation team examined every piece of the telescope and dome. Their goal was two-fold: return the facility to proper working order and turn both the telescope and dome into stunning visual showpieces.
They removed the entre telescope and mount, in segments through the roof. They repaired or replaced components as needed, and reassembled the instrument in the dome. The most significant work involved replacing the telescope’s main bearing, which supports the weight of the entire instrument and enables it to move.
Observatory founder Percival Lowell commissioned the eminent optician and telescope maker, Alvan G. Clark, to build the Clark in 1896. The final product cost Lowell $20,000 and has been declared by astronomers as one of the best refracting telescopes ever made.
For decades, the telescope was used for major research projects, including Percival Lowell’s controversial studies of Mars, V.M. Slipher’s first detection of the expanding nature of the universe, and mapping of the moon for the Apollo program by teams of artists and scientists. It played a secondary role in the discovery of Pluto and was used by astronauts as they trained for their moon missions.
In recent decades, the Clark had been used for the Observatory’s public programs, allowing guests to tour it during the day and view through it at night.
Christensen says the Clark’s educational importance is considerable. “It is one of the main reasons visitors have come to Lowell through the years, inspiring young and old alike and allowing them to discover the cosmos for themselves.”
Lowell Observatory Director Jeffrey Hall said, “Millions of people have enjoyed the opportunity to peer through the Clark in the past. We are pleased to complete this much-needed renovation so millions more in the future can experience this treasure.”
To celebrate the Clark’s return to operation, the Observatory hired filmmaker Ed George to create a documentary about the renovation project. Lowell is also preparing a coffee table book highlighting the telescope’s history and significance. Both the book and film are expected to be finished before the end of the year. FBN