FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A group of Utahns visited Mars recently, during the planet's closet approach to Earth since 1988.
Members of the Salt Lake and Ogden astronomical societies drove to Flagstaff, Ariz., wound along the curving road to the top of Mars Hill, then observed the planet through the magnificent antique telescope at Lowell Observatory.
The observatory was built in the 1890s by Percival Lowell, a Massachusetts Brahmin who believed Mars harbored intelligent life. The world's best telescope makers, Alvan Clark & Sons of Cambridgeport, Mass., constructed Lowell's 24-inch-diameter 'scope for him in 1896 at a cost of $20,000.
"It was shipped out in pieces via train and assembled here," said the observatory's Bob MacArthur, who guided the Utahns.
Lowell hired a Flagstaff firm — which advertised itself as "menders and makers of anything" — to build the dome. Ten men completed the project in 10 days.
The dome looks something like a stout water tower from the outside. Inside, it's a cathedral of crisscrossing struts and planks of native ponderosa, as intricate and tight-fitting as inlaid wood furniture.
The telescope towers 32 feet. Gleaming dully under aluminum paint, it bristles with big guide scopes, cords, dials and rods. It is held together by rivets. One of the Utahns who saw Mars said that with all its rivets, the massive telescope reminded her of a battleship.
An immense counterbalance assures that the telescope can be moved easily with one hand. In order to aim in the desired direction, the dome rotates. (Today it rumbles along on 24 tires — 1954 Ford pickup truck wheels.)
Night after night, for many years, Lowell sat in a dining room chair, peering at Mars through his telescope, convinced he was sketching a network of canals. The canals meant residents of the desert planet were channeling water from its ice caps, he believed. He published three books: "Mars," "Mars and Its Canals" and "Mars As the Abode of Life."
Space probes have since proved him wrong. The "canals" are optical illusions caused when the brain automatically draws straight lines between small features that are at the edge of visibility.
Nevertheless, Lowell Observatory had a distinguished scientific career. In the 1920s, Lowell's successor, Professor V.M. Slipher, used the 24-inch telescope to find the first evidence that galaxies were receding from each other, a critical indication of the Big Bang creation of the universe.
In 1930, Clyde Tombaugh used the observatory's 13-inch telescope to discover the planet Pluto. In the 1960s, the 24-incher was pressed into service by NASA and the Air Force for a moon mapping project.
Today Lowell's scientific contributions are made at Anderson Mesa, 15 miles south of Flagstaff, and the historic observatory is maintained as a museum and a fascinating visitor center.
A homey touch are the covers that keep dust off the ends of the guide scopes.
"We have a 6-inch mixing bowl on the 6-inch guide scope," said MacArthur. "That came up in 1928."
By then, Lowell had died and was buried in the domed-shaped mausoleum near the observatory. V.M. Slipher was using the telescope to make observations of galaxies.
Intending to use it in the kitchen, Mrs. Slipher had ordered the mixing bowl from a Sears and Roebuck catalog. "V.M. Slipher saw that that fit was perfect, and he took it from her.
"And then the 12-inch guide scope has a 12-inch frying pan from Mrs. Slipher's kitchen also" as its dust cover. "She never did get to use them."
At her first glimpse through the telescope, a Salt Lake woman was disappointed. Mars was dim and featureless, she said.
Hansen Planetarium's Patrick Wiggins took a look. "Oh, yeah, wow!" he exclaimed.
The difference was because of two factors. First, that night, clouds kept blocking Mars. Also, as explained by the president of Salt Lake Astronomical Society, Siegfried Jachmann, to fully appreciate Mars an observer must train his eyes to observe subtle detail on the planet.
Because of its great distance and its small size, "Mars at its very best is worse than Jupiter at its worst," Jachmann said.
Those who knew what to look for could identify Mars features, including the white polar caps and dark markings on the surface. For those less experienced, he noted, "it's an orange blob."
The Utahns were thrilled by other sights through the telescope. The globular cluster M-13 was a bright spangle of stars that nearly filled the eyepiece. But the observatory itself was the real star.
"Just the joy of being there with that group of friends was an experience for me," Jachmann said.
Wiggins agreed. Looking through the Clark refractor was "using a piece of history," he said. He marvelled to see "the photons from the same planet, going through the same telescope used by Percival Lowell."
Every two years, Mars passes relatively close to the Earth. In late June it was 42.2 million miles away. Since then it has gradually receded, but it's still close enough to make a stunning display every night, moving from southeast to southwest.
The next Mars opposition will be in August 2003. That will be the best in 5,000 years, Jachmann said.
"It is almost . . . as close as Mars can ever get."
Salt Lake Astronomical Society is already planning to revisit Lowell Observatory then, he said. If the seeing is good and clouds don't block the view, "Oh, it's going to be fantastic."