Lowell Observatory holds a special place both in the lives of those fortunate enough to live in or visit Northern Arizona and in the scope of astronomical research.
Established in 1894 to closely observe Mars, it is one of the oldest observatories in the United States. Its astronomers discovered Pluto, co-discovered the rings of Uranus and now are looking even deeper into space with the Discovery Telescope in Happy Jack.
But the observatory’s mission has always had a strong educational component as well, working to make the mysteries of space more comprehensible to the general public.
Almost 100,000 visitors come to the observatory each year (about 40,000 more than the current Steele Visitor Center was designed to accommodate.)
Which is why Lowell is planning over the next few years to expand its facilities to handle the ever-increasing number of visitors and create an improved educational experience.
An artist’s rendering of what the proposed theater in the new visitor center would look like.
“We want to position ourselves as a destination for science education, not just an attraction,” said Dr. Jeffrey Hall, director of the facility. “Our goal is to be the finest public astronomy education destination in the Americas.”
The first component, which the observatory plans to open next spring is the Giovale Open Deck Observatory. A 5,000-square-foot facility, it will have five top-of-the-line telescopes for public viewing of the heavens.
Depending on fundraising progress, Lowell hopes to open a new Astronomy Discovery Center in the next four years that would triple the program area available in the current visitor center. The new building would include a ‘Dark Sky Planetarium’ on the roof and a theater within the structure. The ultra-wide-screen, immersive experience will take audiences on a “3D fly-through of the marvels of the cosmos,” Hall said.
The improvements, said Hall, are designed to help ignite the passion that Lowell’s astronomers feel about the universe in the general public.
“All our programs are designed to give guests a personalized experience, with the chance to interact with knowledgeable educators as well as professional astronomers,” Hall said.
Northern Arizona has benefited for more than a century from man’s desire to understand the universe. In addition to Lowell and the U.S. Naval Observatory in Flagstaff, Northern Arizona University is heavily invested in astronomy, with a well-regarded undergraduate curricula program, new Ph.D. degree and active faculty research in astronomy and planetary science.
The proposed expansions at Lowell will only serve to strengthen an incredible vital sector of our economy.