Comet of the Century

By Stacey Christen

cropped-colormars19051         Far-ultraviolet camera photograph Of Comet Kohoutek
         taken from Skylab on Christmas Day, 1973.

Czech astronomer Lubos Kohoutek discovered a new comet in March 1973.
Comet Kohoutek had not appeared in nearly 150,000 years. Due to reach
perihilion (the point at which the comet is closest to the sun) on 
December 28, 1973, Comet Kohoutek captured the attention of the public
and was dubbed "comet of the century" by the media. 

Comet Kohoutek had a major presence in popular culture. It was
featured in the Peanuts comic strip, episode 2F11 of The Simpsons,
and was the inspiration for several albums and songs, including
the instrumental track, "Kohoutek" by the band Journey. 


A View to a Comet

By Kevin Schindler

As revealed in earlier blogs, the Putnam Collection Center brims with correspondence, photographs, manuscripts, and other paper documents.  Each of them has a story to tell and, taken collectively, record the exceptional history of Lowell research and the people who did it.  Yet our collections contain so much more, in the form of artifacts. These range from meteorites and other objects crafted by nature, to manmade instruments and other equipment critical to carrying out astronomical research.

Take, for example, this fabulous “comet finder” eyepiece, manufactured by the Alvan Clark & Sons firm of Massachusetts. Early 20th-century astronomers at Lowell attached this 3-inch-focal-length, bronze apparatus to the 24-inch Clark Telescope, allowing for wide-field views of comets such as Halley.  It served as witness to a century of profound human activity, from solar system research to the education of school children.

For years this comet finder was lost, but our crack collections team just found it last week. Now properly curated, it acts as a tour guide to the past, ready to share its story.



Home Sweet Home

By Lauren Amundson

In addition to the telescope domes, administrative offices, and shop facilities here on Mars Hill, there are also several residences. The first house built here, called the Baronial Mansion and occupied by Percival Lowell, began in 1894 as a four-room cottage. Staff added an additional six rooms in 1902, and by the time of Lowell’s death in 1916, the house had eighteen rooms. The original structure sat one hundred feet north of the Clark Telescope dome. It contained bedrooms, servants’ quarters, a garage, bathrooms, kitchen, dining room, library, porch, and a “secret passageway” that ran below the main floor. By 1959, it had fallen into disrepair and become a fire hazard, and the observatory demolished it. 




Mad Libs: Archives Edition

By Stacey Christen

I remember having to practice penmanship in elementary school. At the time, I didn’t believe it was important. As someone who spends hours trying to decipher the handwritten words of others, I now see its value.

A quick look at the first two sentences in the letter below yields this message:

1957 Jan 20

Dear Dr Roemer,

Slow to vaccine & um be lies from California aww hope gun are by now corn for hubby salted fur in stay at lw Naval Observatory at was time & torn.

I donut sunburn gun will hour much fine for comets for a while and to I am finding his & surfermail.


I am fairly certain my quick transcription has a few inaccuracies. After some time looking closely and using context clues, I believe the correct transcription is:

1957 Jan 20

Dear Dr Roemer,

Glad to receive your letter from California and hope you are by now comfortably settled for your stay at the Naval Observatory in Washington.

I don’t suppose you will have much time for comets for a while and so I am sending this by surface mail.

To those of you creating handwritten correspondence, please think of the archivists and practice your penmanship.



By Lauren Amundson

Things have been a little squirrelly in the Putnam Collection Center lately. A squirrel ran into the lobby during an open house a few weeks ago, and he was caught on the security camera running around Big Red before being ushered out by staff. We’re not sure if he even paid admission!

A couple of days ago, this little fella popped up in the window of the processing room to make sure everyone was hard at work.



By Stacey Christen

Putnam Collection Center houses an array of interesting objects and documents. Every day I am amazed at what I read and handle. One of the functions of the collection center is to prepare items for long term storage and future use.

19576094_1604513152900231_1096790182_n (1)

Many of the papers we process are fastened with dried out adhesives, strings and ribbons, and old, rusty staples and paper clips. We follow the protocols of The National Archives when handling papers with fastenings.

Fun in the Sun

By Lauren Amundson

Here on Mars Hill, we’re getting ready for the solar eclipse on August 21. Many Lowell Observatory staff, volunteers, and members are traveling to various locations to view the total eclipse. Others are staying in Flagstaff, where we’ll have about seventy percent totality.

Nearly one hundred years ago, on June 8, 1918, Lowell Observatory made an expedition to Syracuse, Kansas for a total solar eclipse. The group included Lowell astronomer E.C. Slipher; Percival Lowell’s widow, Constance; instrument maker Stanley Sykes; and Harvard zoology professor George R. Agassiz. We have in the archives a list of the expedition’s members and some of Slipher’s beautiful photos of the eclipse.



Wherever your travels take you for the 2017 eclipse, be safe and have fun!

Exploring the Skies from a City Backyard

By Stacey Christen

Dr. Elizabeth (Pat) Roemer (1929-2016) devoted her career to the study of comets, asteroids, and minor planets. Her interest in astronomy started in high school. In response to a question during an oral history interview, Dr. Roemer had this to say about her first interest in astronomy:

It came about when I was a freshman in high school during the years of the Second World War, when many people were teaching on emergency credentials and were not properly qualified teachers. A general science teacher made a number of statements that had astronomical implications. One involved a map of the tilt of the Earth’s axis and how the seasons came about, and one involved the statement that Polaris was the largest star. I can’t tell how, but even at that stage I knew enough to know that what we were being told was not so. But I didn’t know what the right answers were. I was encouraged that if I didn’t find things in books- you don’t find what is the largest star- then to look elsewhere. I was in touch with one of the teaching assistants in the Astronomy Department at Berkeley who helped me get information, and that led to interest in other aspects of astronomy.

At the age of 16, Elizabeth completed a science project titled “Exploring the Skies from a City Backyard.” The following images are from this project.



  The Elizabeth Roemer Papers are currently being processed at Lowell Observatory.

A Signal from Mars

Welcome to A Signal from Mars, the new blog from Lowell Observatory’s Putnam Collection Center. We thought this would be a fun way to share our collections with you!

Many people know Lowell Observatory from our founder Percival Lowell’s Mars studies and theories about an intelligent civilization on the Red Planet. In fact, the inspiration for our blog’s title came from a 1901 song written by E.T. Paull at the height of the Mars craze. Others may recognize Lowell Observatory as the place where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930.

Although our collections are rich with materials that document these two famous aspects of our history (and we will definitely post some of them), we have so much more to share. Our goal is to highlight hidden treasures from our collections that the public may not otherwise see, and we’ll also give you an inside look at some of our projects and activities.

Let’s start with these drawings of Jupiter made by Lowell Observatory astronomer E.C. Slipher in 1917-1918. Slipher was a planetary astronomer and photographer, known especially for his studies of Mars. He worked at Lowell from 1908 until his death in 1964.