Seeing stars: An overview of Flagstaff’s observatories
The topographic and atmospheric conditions surrounding Flagstaff are uniquely suited for astronomical observation.
As a result, Flagstaff has become home to numerous telescopes and observatories, and the city has responded by protecting these privileged conditions through the Light Code ordinance introduced in 1958 — most recently updated in 1999.
Lowell Observatory is a private, non-profit institution founded in 1894 and a registered National Historic Landmark. Research at Lowell has led to the discovery of Pluto, evidence of our expanding universe and measurements of the motions and properties of stars. Current research includes searching for planets orbiting other stars, a decades-long study of the brightness stability of the sun and investigations of star formation and other processes in distant galaxies.
The observatory opened the Steele Visitor center in 1994, and now features tours, telescope viewings, exhibits, multimedia shows, a 3-D planetarium and other activities for visitors. Two stationary telescopes are available to the public, and numerous portable ones are also made available when practical.
This year, Lowell will open the Discovery Channel Telescope, the fifth largest telescope in the continental United States. This facility will expand Lowell astronomers’ breadth of research possibilities and bring more public awareness to the observatory by broadcasting images gained from the telescope.
Lowell Observatory is located at 1400 West Mars Hill Road in Flagstaff, which is northwest of NAU, at a distance of approximately 1.5 miles from the university’s northern-most point.
No prior reservations must be made to visit Lowell. The admission fee is $9 for students and $11 for adults. This fee covers day and evening programs. During the summer, Lowell Observatory is open daily from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m.
Monday evenings from 7 to 9 p.m., visitors may meet astronomers working for the observatory and ask questions. Thursday evenings from 7 to 8 p.m., the observatory hosts live local bands.
Numerous other info sessions and lectures are offered during evenings; further information can be found at Lowell.edu/visit_events.php. Various volunteering options are available for those who are interested.
THE ATMOSPHERIC RESEARCH OBSERVATORY
NAU’s Atmospheric Research Observatory is home to the 0.5 meter Barry Lutz telescope. The telescope is a reflector, according to Stephen Tegler, Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Director of the Atmospheric Research Observatory. This means its imaging elements are mirrors.
The telescope will make it possible for students to see the moon with astonishing detail, as well as Venus, Saturn and its rings, Jupiter with its cloud bands and its moons, nebulae, the Andromeda galaxy, globular clusters and other celestial objects.
The Barry Lutz telescope is a valuable instrument for students and meets professional standards.
“Its primary mission is education and public outreach,” Tegler said.
Ongoing research projects by undergraduate students under supervision of faculty includes studying near-Earth objects, their potential hazards and their physical properties; studying planets that orbit nearby stars; and investigating the age of these bodies, Tegler said.
The astronomy club is entirely in charge of the public nights on Fridays. Besides staffing the observatory, they provide tutorials to visitors while they look through the telescope.
Students may visit the Atmospheric Research Observatory for free; it is building No. 47, located just southeast of Reilly Hall next to the ROTC buildings.
Although the observatory is down for maintenance during the summer, it is open to the public during the fall and spring semesters on clear Friday evenings from 7:30 to 10 p.m. It may also be available during special events; for example, if a bright comet is expected to make an appearance, Tegler said.
The U.S. Naval Observatory
The U.S. Naval Observatory is located west of Flagstaff, and is home to two reflectors, an interferometer and other large telescopes.
Because this a military installation, it is not available to the public for regular visits. With prior arrangements and proper clearance, school groups may tour the site during the day, but the telescopes are reserved for military use on every clear night.