Peregrinations & Pluto

by Grania

Jerry sent all these on to me using his phone. God only knows what his bill is going to look like when he gets home.

Anyway, yesterday was the day when New Horizons swung by Pluto on its historic voyage to the Kuiper Belt. Jerry and friends of the website Kelly Houle and Ben Goren went to visit the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona which is of course, where Pluto was actually discovered.

As always, you can click through on each photograph twice to view in full size.

This is the building that houses the photographic telescope (no viewing by eye possible) that first detected Pluto.


Kelly Houle, Ben Goren, and Jerry at At Lowell Observatory on closest approach day.


The discovery of Pluto is from this document – the logbook of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto.


Wikipedia notes:

Tombaugh used the observatory’s 13-inch astrograph to take photographs of the same section of sky several nights apart. He then used a blink comparator to compare the different images. When he shifted between the two images, a moving object, such as a planet, would appear to jump from one position to another, while the more distant objects such as stars would appear stationary. Tombaugh noticed such a moving object in his search, near the place predicted by Lowell, and subsequent observations showed it to have an orbit beyond that of Neptune. This ruled out classification as an asteroid, and they decided this was the ninth planet that Lowell had predicted.

Instrument used by Slipher to show universe was expanding!!!


Camera scope that detected Pluto.


and a little more detail… (you can read about it here)


from the site:

Built in 1928-1929 expressly for the purpose of completing the search for “Planet X” – the name for the hypothetical ninth planet in the solar system that Percival Lowell thought must exist – the Pluto Discovery Telescope, like the Clark, is one of the most famous telescopes in the history of American astronomical research.

Some information on the Dome.


and the discovery.


And finally The Clark Refractor which was apparently used, amongst other things, by Percival Lowell to further his legendary theories about intelligent life on Mars. I suppose it was worth a shot.


And one of our intrepid peregrinator himself.


H/t: Kenneth Howard


  1. GBJames
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 10:05 am | Permalink


    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted July 16, 2015 at 4:19 am | Permalink


  2. Dominic
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    It is a tiny building! Looks windmill-like. I can imagine Jerry & Ben (mmmmm…) as Don Quixote & Sancho Panza tilting the telescope…

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted July 15, 2015 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      Like a Tartus, it is actually a lot larger on the inside…

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted July 15, 2015 at 11:33 am | Permalink

        TARDIS: Time And Relative Dimensions In Space.

  3. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Marvelous! I have visited this observatory several times when I used to live in Flagstaff in one of my ‘former lives’. They host an evening program where you can actually look through the great Clark refractor! It was very dark in the room so I could not see much of the huge scope at the time, so it is nice to see it here. That is one big instrument! The evening where i looked through it it was pointed at a globular cluster. It was an amazing site that I will never forget — a tight ball of many stars, all in beautiful focus.
    I remember the observatory itself was a very impressive structure, and I could see that the dome could rotate around a track borne on a series of car tires. You can actually see that in the 1st picture inside the dome.

  4. Je suis Charlie
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Was the timing deliberate, or a happy coincidink?

  5. Posted July 15, 2015 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    God only knows what his bill is going to look like when he gets home.

    Wait, wait… excuse me… G*d?

  6. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Given his location, I predict that next he will drive south to Sedona, descending rapidly from 6000 feet –> ~ sea level, and into Sonoran desert and Phoenix. The drive toward Sedona is absolutely lovely.

    • Posted July 15, 2015 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

      You’ve actually got that backwards. Jerry drive to Ken and Kelly’s home in Mesa; the three of them drove to Tempe to pick me up. We’re staying with Kelly’s parents in Dewey, which is about 20 miles before you get to Prescott. We drove through Sedona on the way to Flagstaff.


      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted July 15, 2015 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

        Well, I guess I won’t make it as a fortune teller.

        • Scote
          Posted July 15, 2015 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

          Woah, woah. Your psychic powers are totally up to snuff. You just need to say, “Yes, because they are telling me that.” when contradicted, as if it was you who made the correction.

  7. rickflick
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    The Hubble telescope of the 1930’s.

  8. Posted July 15, 2015 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    What a place of wonders.

    I remember meeting Tombaugh as a grade 7 student – my father had heard that he was coming to a McGill astronomy meeting or something and got me out to go. I got him to sign my copy of _The Atlas of the Solar System_ on the relevant page. Quiet old man at the time – he was the only living discoverer of a planet then, too.

    • Dan
      Posted July 15, 2015 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

      You can always get Mike Brown’s signature. He’s the discoverer of several candidate dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt/Scattered Disc including Eris, Sedna, Quaoar, Makemake, and (controversially) Haumea.

  9. DrBrydon
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Good stuff! Ah, old Percival Lowell. Makes me think of the gondolieri of Mars.

  10. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    “Planet X” – the name for the hypothetical ninth planet in the solar system that Percival Lowell thought must exist

    I guess Roman numerals weren’t Lowell’s strong suit.

    • Posted July 15, 2015 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps it was to distinguish it from Plan 9 From Outer Space.

    • Steve McCraw
      Posted July 15, 2015 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      Sarcasm? X is clearly representing an unknown, not the roman numeral “10”.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted July 15, 2015 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

        That’s not as clear as you might think. Before being assigned names, planetary moons are conventionally labeled with Roman numerals in the order of their discovery. So for instance Charon is Pluto I, Nix is Pluto II, and so on. By that convention, Pluto ought to be Sol IX.

        But wait. Apparently the asteroid Pallas was, at the time of its discovery, briefly thought to be planet IX. So it’s plausible that Lowell could have called his hypothetical trans-Neptunian planet “X” because he thought “IX” was already taken.

        But it seems that’s not the case. Wikipedia says:

        The X in the name represents an unknown and is pronounced as the letter, as opposed to the Roman numeral for 10 (At the time, Planet X would have been the ninth planet).

        So yes, I was being flippant, but there was a real ambiguity there, and now I know the answer.

  11. Ken Elliott
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    It’s good to put a face to Ben’s name.

    This has been a fun trip. I’m glad Jerry took us with him. I have never been to an observatory, but would love to go someday. It’s on a bucket list that may never get ticked. Who knows?

    • MadScientist
      Posted July 16, 2015 at 12:59 am | Permalink

      If you mean an astronomical observatory then you can join the club – most researchers never see the observatory that they get their data from. I shamelessly wander onto observatory sites during the day when only maintenance work goes on, but unless you know people on the site or public tours are run you have very little chance of seeing anything. In Tucson there are a number of observatories on Kitt Peak and Mt. Graham; the Kitt Peak observatories includes the Kitt Peak Solar Observatory which of course operates through the daylight hours. The Mt. Graham observatories includes the Vatican Observatory.

      • MadScientist
        Posted July 16, 2015 at 1:04 am | Permalink

        Oops – I meant *near* Tucson. Or what passes for near to anything in Az.

        • Diane G.
          Posted July 16, 2015 at 5:38 am | Permalink

          The Vatican Observatory?

          Well, I suppose Rome is *near* Tucson in the astronomical sense…

  12. Filippo
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    I think I heard on NPR this a.m. that a portion of Tombaugh’s ashes are on the New Horizon probe.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted July 15, 2015 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      Yes, they are.

    • rickflick
      Posted July 15, 2015 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

      I’m pretty certain he never would have imagined it. It’s a very touching gesture. I wonder if space scientists have a more romantic disposition than the more down to earth variety.

      • Diane G.
        Posted July 16, 2015 at 5:41 am | Permalink

        Oh, hey, you’re talking about an awful lot of people there!

  13. Dean Booth
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Related: When I worked for the Nathaniel Hawthorne project at Ohio State in the 80’s, we use an old blink comparator to discover differences in editions of Hawthorne’s novels. Differences in spellings or words in two versions would blink on and off.

    • MadScientist
      Posted July 16, 2015 at 12:54 am | Permalink

      And the discrepancies in the placement and shape of every character on the pages would make a funky display that’ll make you feel sick. Once upon a time I thought a blink comparator would be a great tool to view the “Spot the Differences” cartoons and within a few seconds of using it I went back to using a simple stereoscope instead.

  14. Posted July 15, 2015 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Kelly used to work at Lowell, and she shamelessly used her connections to get us some behind-the-scenes access. Jeff Hall, her old boss, showed us his current research…observing the rotation of stars other than the Sun. My mind was well and truly blown, and I’m thankful for Jeff’s not only patience but enthusiasm in explaining it all.


    • rickflick
      Posted July 15, 2015 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

      Lucky for you! Sounds like a very entertaining back-stage tour.

    • Posted July 16, 2015 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

      That was Brian Skiff–we didn’t run into Jeff Hall.

      • Posted July 16, 2015 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

        Oy! I am so sorry! I’m absolutely miserable with names. My apologies to both Brian and Jeff — and thanks again to Brian, whose research I’m still thinking about….


  15. rickflick
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a short film about Tombaugh with reflections by his children and mention of the connection to New Horizons:

  16. MadScientist
    Posted July 16, 2015 at 12:51 am | Permalink

    I love those old monstrous refractors even if they’re not terribly good telescopes. It’s a pity the Yale-Columbia telescope which was relocated to Australia was destroyed in a fire; these large telescopes are quite impressive museum pieces.

  17. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted July 19, 2015 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    the Pluto Discovery Telescope, like the Clark, is one of the most famous telescopes in the history of American astronomical research.

    I’m just wondering what happened to Herschel’s telescope (Uranus/ George’s Star) and Le Verrier’s (Neptune).
    But while I research that, a few months ago I got the PPoD (Pluto Picture of the Day) from the New Horizons PR department and went “Hmmm”. I doubt that I was the first to spot the error, but it was news to the intern who I pointed it out to. (No casting of stones here, due to surrounding vitreous building materials.)
    Herschel’s telescope seems lost. There’s a replica at the Bath Museum , but no mention of where the original is. since other of his telescopes have been demolished, probably this one too. Sad.
    For Neptune, Le Verrier did the number crunching, but Johann Galle did the eyeball work. The telescope he used is at the Deutsches Museum but that doesn’t seem to have a search page that I can point at the telescope’s location.

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