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The history behind Flagstaff’s ICONIC Astronomy Observatory

Photos courtesy of Lowell Observatory

Stars from Lowell astronomy observatory hero

Courtesy of Lowell Observatory

This historic and ICONIC astronomy observatory allows you to see to infinity and beyond.

When thinking back on Arizona’s history, you may think of the tales of the famous Wild West, where cowboys and outlaws grazed the ground, which could very well now be your local Starbucks. One thing that may surprise you is that while cowboys were having their hoedowns, astronomers were here making groundbreaking discoveries in the Lowell observatory about space and the sparkling stars that occupy it.

The study of the sky and space has a rich history that dates back to some of the earliest traces of civilization. Historic astronomy started with people looking up at the sky to observe the moon, planets and stars. These observations have shaped crucial parts of the human experience, such as the understanding and conceptualizing of time. 

Ancient civilizations also relied on astronomy observation to create their calendars, using the placement of stars as key indicators of when to plant crops. 

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Constellations from lowell astronomy observatory

“Astronomy is history,” Kevin Schindler, public information officer for the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., says. “You’re looking back in time. When you look at the stars, you’re looking at light that started traveling toward us a couple of million years ago, before humans were ever around.” 

For more than 130 years, astronomers at the Lowell Observatory have explored the Arizona skies, researching constellations, solar systems and galaxies far beyond ours. 

Percival Lowell, founder of Lowell astronomy observatory

Flagstaff’s astronomy observatory was founded by Percival Lowell, who always had a fascination with astronomy. He took over the research of canals found on Mars in hopes of finding proof of life from an Italian astronomer who was losing his eyesight. This goal led Lowell to open an astronomy observatory in Arizona, now known as the Lowell Observatory. 

“The observatory was set up to be a research facility,” Schindler notes. “However, Lowell said, ‘What’s the point of researching unless you share it with the public?’ From the beginning, he welcomed visitors to look through the telescopes.” 

Astronomer looking through telescope at lowell observatory

Astronomy is history, when you look at the stars, you're looking at light that started traveling toward us a couple of million years ago, before humans were ever around.

Since its founding, astronomers at the Lowell Observatory have made groundbreaking discoveries and achieved massive breakthroughs in research. For instance, it was involved in NASA’s DART mission to test a method of planetary defense against harmful asteroids that make their way into Earth’s orbit, as well as the discovery of Pluto. 

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Lowell astronomy observatory exterior

“Fifteen years ago, we knew of one planetary system with nine planets, our system,” Schindler says. “Technology has allowed us to start discovering that other stars have planets. Scientists are finding new planets every day now.” 

Public outreach has remained an integral part of the astronomy observatory. With high visitation volume, the observatory is opening a 40,000-square-foot science center to better accommodate those who wish to learn more about astronomy. 

“When you’re looking through a telescope at a galaxy or a star cluster, it doesn’t matter how many people are around you. When you’re looking through that telescope, it’s just you and what you see. You are completely connected with the universe around you, which I think is a special experience,” Schindler remarks. 

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