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June 5, 2014

Percival Lowell using the telescope in 1914 (left), and a more modern viewPercival Lowell using the telescope in 1914 (left), and a more modern view [Lowell Observatory (2)]

One hundred eighteen years ago, a team of draft horses labored up a hill west of Flagstaff, Arizona. Their cargo was a 32-foot steel telescope tube commissioned by astronomer Percival Lowell. The telescope was built by the Massachusetts firm of Alvan Clark and Sons, builders of the day’s finest refracting telescopes, which use glass lenses to gather and focus starlight.

The lens for Lowell’s new telescope measured a respectable 24 inches across. With it, Lowell would continue his lifelong search for intelligent life on Mars. Later, other astronomers used it to gather the first evidence of the expanding universe, and to map the Moon for NASA. Apollo astronauts peered through it to see where they would someday leave their footprints.

After more than a century of work, though, even a telescope wears out. So this year, Lowell Observatory is giving the Clark telescope a makeover. Its lenses are being cleaned, its focusing mechanisms adjusted, and its main bearings refurbished to safely support the six-ton telescope.

The Observatory is also rebuilding the wooden dome that protects the telescope from northern Arizona’s harsh winters and monsoon summers.

When the telescope returns to service next year, perhaps one of its subjects will be the star Phi 2 Orionis, which is 118 light years away. At that distance, the light captured by the refurbished Clark telescope will have begun its journey toward Earth when the telescope was brand new.

Script by Brian Sanders, Copyright 2014

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