Stretch Goal $32,765
THANK YOU for getting us to our goal! Now we are asking for your help with the next phase of this project: the Renovation of the Pluto Dome Exhibit! Once we’ve taken apart, cleaned, and restored the Pluto Discovery Telescope, it will be reinstalled in the Pluto Dome for visitors to see on tours at Lowell. We want to ensure these tours stay current and engaging for our more than 80,000 annual visitors. To achieve this, Lowell Observatory Curator, Samantha Thompson, is planning the renovation of the Pluto Dome exhibit, located downstairs from the telescope. With your help, we can raise the funds needed to do justice to Clyde Tombaugh and the incredible story of Pluto’s discovery!
That’s why we created a stretch goal of $32,765! This additional $10,000 will go toward the purchase of custom cases to fit the curved dome walls and protect the artifacts displayed there, as well as Curator Samantha Thompson’s time to redesign the space and include new displays that reflect what we’ve learned from NASA’s New Horizons mission. The new exhibit space will be ready in time for the grand opening of the restored Pluto Discovery Telescope!
We’ve also added two new rewards to go along with our new goal. Now is your chance to pledge (or increase your current pledge) to take advantage of these limited rewards: a Deep Space Image taken with Lowell’s Discovery Channel Telescope and a Fine Art Print of the Historic 24-inch Clark Telescope! Thank you again for all your support!
You’ve got to have a pretty thick skin to be Pluto. Since this pint-sized planet first appeared to humans in 1930, people have picked on it. They’ve called Pluto the runt of a litter of 9 and gone so far as to say it wasn’t even a legitimate member of its planetary family. And forget about holding any birthday parties on Pluto; on Earth you have to wait 365 days between birthdays, while on Pluto the wait is an interminable 248 Earth years.
But Pluto has stood strong, showing these bullies and naysayers its worth. It maintains a positive atmosphere when possible and has demonstrated much more character, both inside and out, than anyone expected. Plus, it has surrounded itself with a strong supporting cast, with an orbit of five friends that outnumbers that of half its siblings.
After a year that saw Pluto finally receive the attention it deserved, it’s on the defense once again. You see, the home where it was born, the white, flat-topped dome and telescope where Pluto first made its mark, is in trouble. Pluto needs your help to fix it.
What’s The Project?
After 87 years of constant use, first for research and later education, the Pluto Discovery Telescope’s lens assembly, mount, and other components need attention. If we don’t act now, the telescope’s heritage could be lost to future generations.
Some of the work to be done includes testing and fixing the telescope’s drive motor and other electronic components; restoring plate holders and control knobs; cleaning plate holders, control knobs, optics, and other parts; and removing, cleaning, and reinstalling the telescope itself. The restoration team is the same one that recently restored Lowell’s magnificent 24-inch Clark Telescope. It consists of five Lowell staff members with expertise in telescope maintenance and restoration, instrumentation, machining, and wood working. These talented individuals estimate the Pluto telescope and dome restoration will take between six and nine months. When the fundraising campaign is finished, the team can begin work. If we raise extra funds, those funds will be added to the Mars Hill Fund, which helps maintain Lowell Observatory's historic telescopes, including the Pluto Discovery Telescope.
Why should we bother fixing up some old telescope? Let’s capture the answer to this question with two words that play off each other: legacy and pride. What’s the telescope’s legacy? First and foremost, of course, is the discovery of Pluto, an event that Time Magazine called the most important scientific discovery of the 1930s. Pluto is the first planet in our solar system discovered in the United States, and the only one discovered in the 20th century. It led to our understanding of the solar system’s “third zone”, the Kuiper belt. This makes the telescope that discovered Pluto not just a national or even international treasure, but a galactic one as well.
Who cares? Well, it turns out a lot of people take pride in Pluto’s discovery: there are the scientists who have spent much of their professional careers studying this “little planet that could”; descendants of Clyde Tombaugh, who made the family name a household word; underdogs everywhere who are inspired by Tombaugh’s success despite his modest upbringing; Flagstaff residents who look at their city as the “home of Pluto”; Americans who likewise see Pluto as “America’s planet”; teachers who love holding up models of the solar system with nine, rather than eight planets; their eager students thirsting to learn about the wonders of space; historians who point out Pluto’s discovery as a bright light in an otherwise very dark period that saw the ravages of the depression capture most headlines; writers who are entranced by the magic of a world recently unveiled by NASA’s New Horizons mission; and everyday people who wear shirts with messages such as “When I was your age Pluto was a Planet”, “Pluto demands a recount”, “It’s OK Pluto, I’m not a planet either”, “Pluto: Never Forget”, “RIP Pluto: 1930 – 2006”, and a few downright foul ones that our censors caught.
How YOU Can Help!
If you, like us, care about little Pluto, show the world your support with a donation to our campaign. Pluto will appreciate even a $9 donation to preserve its unique story, and you'll receive a unique set of rewards for your donation.
Help us spread the word and reach our goal to restore the Pluto Discovery Telescope!
Origins of the Pluto Discovery Telescope and Dome
Lowell Observatory founder Percival Lowell initiated a search for a theoretical ninth planet, which he called planet X, in 1905. Over the ensuing decade, he and his team would try several different instruments during the on again/off again planet hunt. These included telescopes ranging in diameter from five to 42 inches and which generally proved inadequate for the work.
Lowell died in 1916 and the quest for Planet X ceased. Eleven years later, Lowell Observatory sole trustee Roger Putnam worked with director V.M. Slipher to recommence the search, devising a plan of attack and lining up the appropriate equipment and staff to carry out a program that would prove more systematic than past attempts.
Percival’s brother Abbott Lawrence Lowell, then serving as president of Harvard University, donated $10,000 to Lowell Observatory to build a facility specifically designed for the search. With this money, the Observatory paid the Alvan Clark & Sons firm—the company that had built Lowell’s 24-inch refractor in 1896—to fashion a triplet lens. The remaining $6,000 would go toward telescope mount and dome construction, which commenced in early 1928. For the dome, Lowell machinist Stanley Sykes followed the same basic design his brother Godfrey had devised for the 24-inch Clark dome back in 1896.
The telescope lens arrived on February 11, 1929 and staff needed several days to install the 13-inch-diameter triplet into the telescope tube. The instrument—technically called an astrograph, which is a type of telescope specifically designed for photography—had a focal length of 66.5 inches and held 14 x 17-inch glass plates with a 12 x 15-degree field of view, perfect for surveying the sky. Staff exposed the first photographic plates on February 16 and after various adjustments, began the systematic search for Planet X on April 6. Clyde Tombaugh, who began working at the Observatory on January 15, was soon trained to not only make the plates but also examine them on the blink comparator, a machine used to microscopically study photographs of the sky.
Clyde Tombaugh Discovers Pluto
Tuesday, February 18, 1930, started out as a typical day for Tombaugh. He woke up at about 7:00 a.m., just before sunrise, and drove the mile from Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill to downtown Flagstaff, where he picked up the observatory’s mail at the post office and ate breakfast at his favorite cafe.
He returned to the observatory and by 9:00 a.m. was in the room housing the blink comparator. Tombaugh settled in for another tedious day of staring through the comparator’s microscope eyepiece. The particular images he examined on this day captured a portion of the constellation Gemini, near the star Delta Geminorum. Tombaugh captured these pictures several weeks earlier, on January 23 and 29. He had already spent a few days examining the images, and today he hoped to make some significant progress.
That morning, Tombaugh spent three hours at the blink comparator, occasionally taking breaks from the mentally rigorous blinking. Without these breaks, his eyes would start blurring images together and his concentration would falter.
At noon he drove back to the cafe for lunch and returned by 1:00 p.m. for another lengthy session of blinking. By 4:00 p.m., he had examined about one quarter of the plates when he saw a faint image, about 15th magnitude, popping in and out of view. He had been doing this blinking business long enough to know when he had an obvious planet suspect. This definitely was one. With mounting excitement, he spent the next 45 minutes making measurements and checking a backup set of plates taken with a 5-inch telescope mounted to the 13-inch. Sure enough, the images were also on these plates, in the exact expected position.
Tombaugh called in astronomer Carl Lampland from across the hall, then hurried to director V.M. Slipher’s office. With as much composure as he could muster, the 24-year-old assistant announced, “I have found your Planet X.”
Tombaugh continued searching for other planets until 1942, covering about 75% of the sky. The telescope was subsequently used to study asteroids and comets and search for small natural satellites of Earth and the moon.
Later, astronomers found the telescope to be a perfect tool for one of the most important yet least known projects at Lowell, a proper motion survey of stars. The telescope was moved to Lowell’s Anderson Mesa dark sky site in 1970 and used for the proper motion survey until 1980.
Scientists again used the telescope for asteroid studies until it was returned to its original dome on the main Lowell campus on August 11, 1993. Since then, tens of thousands of visitors each year see the telescope used to discover Pluto and hear the compelling story behind this historic instrument.
About Lowell Observatory
The mission of Lowell Observatory is “to pursue the study of astronomy, especially the study of our solar system and its evolution; to conduct pure research in astronomical phenomena; and to maintain quality public education and outreach programs to bring the results of astronomical research to the public”.
Lowell Observatory’s 122-year history includes some of the most significant astronomical discoveries in human history. Among them are the discovery of Pluto in 1930 and the first detection of the expanding nature of the universe in 1912. Lowell continues this legacy of discovery with our 4.3-meter Discovery Channel Telescope, which saw first light in 2012.
Percival Lowell captured the spirit of the second part of the mission when he wrote in his 1906 book, “Mars and its Canals”, To set forth science in a popular, that is, in a generally understandable, form is as obligatory as to present it in a more technical manner. If men are to benefit by it, it must be expressed to their comprehension. In 1994, in celebration of our centennial, we opened the Steele Visitor Center. Since then, well over a million people have passed through its doors, with 97,591 alone in 2015, the year of the New Horizons Pluto flyby.
Risks and challenges
While there is always some inherent risk in working with historic artifacts, we have a world class team with a great deal of experience prepared to restore the Pluto Telescope. The same team recently successfully renovated our 120-year-old Clark Telescope, and they have extensive experience working with and restoring telescopes both modern and historic. Failing to renew the telescope and dome would pose a much greater long term risk to the telescope, than the small risks involved in the renovation itself.
The staff members who will be working on the Pluto Telescope restoration do have other duties, including designing, building, and maintaining the observatory's active scientific instruments. These projects make it difficult to set a firm timeline and may cause delays, but the observatory is committed to commencing the project before the end of the year. Poor weather could similarly delay the project, but the team is experienced working in these conditions. Due to the project's high priority status at the observatory, there is little that could prevent its successful completion, once funding is secured.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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