Lasting Light

Lowell Observatory staff and workers work to remove a 400-lb. counterweight from the mount for the historic Clark Refractor. This 120-year-old telescope is undergoing a complete refurbishment.

Workers prepare to remove a 400-lb. counterweight from the mount of the historic Clark Refractor. This 120-year-old telescope is undergoing a complete refurbishment at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. (Bill Ferris)

Photographers and astronomers share a lot in common. Arguably, the most important shared quality is their reliance on light. For the photographer, light paints the subject. It imbues a scene with certain qualities. Light can be bright and happy, dark and brooding, or any of a variety of personalities. For the astronomer, light is information. By examining the light from a celestial body, an astronomer can determine its distance, size, composition and how its moving. In the same way that light adds drama to a photographer’s composition, light – and the information it carries – allows an astronomer to answer fundamental questions about the universe.

In the 1890’s Percival Lowell established a research observatory in the sleepy railroad town of Flagstaff, Arizona. Lowell was, in many respects, a pioneer of modern science. He built his observatory in the western United States far from his Boston home. At a time when many observatories were still being built at locations near major cities and universities, Lowell chose the site for his observatory for its remoteness and the quality of its skies. As important as light is to the astronomer, the best places from which to explore the night sky are those far from city lights where natural darkness allows the feeble glow of distant objects to be seen.

Soon after Lowell Observatory was established, its founder contacted Alvan Clark & Sons and commissioned them to build a 24-inch refracting telescope. It would be among the largest such instruments in the world and from first light in 1894 through the 1960’s, the Clark Refractor at Lowell Observatory regularly contributed to the science of astronomy. Lowell staff astronomers used the Clark to make some of the first photographic images of the planet, Mars. The Clark was used to study the motions of so-called spiral nebulae. These observations produced the first evidence of an expanding universe. During the Apollo program in the 1960’s cartographers used the Clark to make detailed maps of the lunar surface. Apollo astronaut Neill Armstrong even visited Lowell Observatory to observe the Moon through the 24-inch Clark, before making his one giant leap for all mankind.

Workers prepare to lift a counterweight through the open shutter of the Clark Dome at Lowell Observatory.

Workers prepare to lift a counterweight through the open shutter of the Clark Dome at Lowell Observatory. (Bill Ferris)

In recent decades, larger and more powerful telescopes have replaced the Clark Refractor as the principal research tools used by the Lowell science team. However, the 24-inch telescope has definitely not been put out to pasture. This historic instrument has been used almost every clear night for years to share the wonders of the universe with the general public. For several years, I had the great privilege and pleasure of working at Lowell Observatory as a tour guide and observer. The joy I experienced when operating the Clark was exceeded only by the awe felt by visitors when, for the first – and possibly only – time in their lives, they stood in that darkened dome, peered into the eyepiece and saw Mars as it can only be presented by a world-class refracting telescope.

Of course, the decades have been at work on this historic instrument. Time, use and the elements have taken a toll on the great refractor. In January 2014, Lowell Observatory staff removed the telescope from its home on Mars Hill to begin a months-long project to refurbish the Clark. When friend and Lowell Observatory Communications Manager Kevin Schindler invited me to be there for this historic happening, I immediately jumped at the chance. Although it has been years since I last observed with the Clark, memories of astounding views of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are still fresh in my mind. There was no way I was going to miss this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Lowell Observatory's Ralph Nye (on right in blue jacket) inspects progress toward removing one of the 400-lb. counterweights from the mount of the Clark Refractor.

Lowell Observatory’s Ralph Nye (on right in blue jacket) inspects progress toward removing one of the 400-lb. counterweights from the mount of the Clark Refractor. (Bill Ferris)

The telescope was removed from its dome in stages. The lens cell and lenses are the heart and soul of any refractor. The 120-year-old optics of the Clark were removed, first, and stored safely away from the work area. Next, several 400-lb. counterweights were removed – one at a time – from the telescope mount. Finally, the 32-foot optical tube was disassembled, with each section raised through the open dome shutter by a large crane.

I was struck by the number of people in attendance and the variety of ways they were documenting the historic undertaking. The observatory had hired a professional videographer and a pro photographer to capture the event. Additionally, several observatory staff used smart phones to make movies and photos. I was there with my D600 shooting a time lapse video. There was at least one iPad in use and a quadcopter hovering just outside the dome. While observing this hive of activity, it dawned on me that if this work had happened five years ago, there would be no quadcopter, no iPad, no DSLR’s shooting video. It is amazing how much can change in just a few years.

Of course, I’m looking forward to the return of a refurbished and fully-functional Clark telescope. That should happen in 2015. And on that day, I plan to be back on Mars Hill with my camera documenting the homecoming for this historic instrument of science and public education. That will be a grand day but the real treat will be the next clear, dark night in northern Arizona when the 24-inch Clark Refractor sees first light for the second time in her life.

Now, get out there and shoot.

Bill Ferris | February 2014

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