TUCSON — Percival Lowell, wealthy scion of a Massachusetts textile family, was obsessed with Mars: He sought to prove that life existed on the Red Planet.
So he dispatched a Harvard astronomer on a hasty rail tour to scour the Arizona Territory for a telescope site.
Lowell ultimately failed in his quest. But, 100 years after he first peered through a telescope from Mars Hill in Flagstaff on May 28, 1894, the observatory he founded is thriving.
It was from Lowell Observatory in the early part of the century that astronomers discovered the planet Pluto and gleaned the first clue that the universe is expanding.
The observatory, small by today's standards and not part of any university, continues its scientific role. It seeks out comets and asteroids, studies the planets and assesses the sun's long-term future and stability.
"They have a long and distinguished history in making contributions, particularly in planetary sciences, and they continue to do so," said Richard Green, director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories, including Kitt Peak near Tucson.
The observatory marked its centennial by opening a $2.5-million interactive visitor center that will attract some of the thousands of people who pass through Flagstaff, 140 miles north of Phoenix, on their way to the Grand Canyon.
"The observatory is alive and well and pursuing astronomy at the forefront of what's being done," said Edward Bowell, a staff astronomer and noted asteroid hunter.
Bowell and astronomers Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker head an effort to detect potentially lethal chunks of ice and rock hurtling through space.
They are among the most prolific patrollers in the world: Bowell has discovered and named more than 300 asteroids, and Carolyn Shoemaker has found more than 300 asteroids and 30 comets.
They troll for killer comets and asteroids, like Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which is expected to plunge into Jupiter on July 16 at 134,000 m.p.h.
Shoemaker-Levy 9's collision with Jupiter will unleash a blast conservatively estimated at 1 million megatons, 200 times the explosive power of the world's entire nuclear arsenal.
Lowell, with 16 astronomers with doctorates, has stayed in the game partly by upgrading older, undersized equipment in an era when instruments are constantly getting bigger and more sophisticated.
Most important has been the use of extremely sensitive, digital computer cameras that improve the performance of existing telescopes, according to Lowell director Robert Millis, co-discoverer in 1977 of rings around Uranus and in 1988 of Pluto's hazy atmosphere.
These devices allow an instrument the size of the 72-inch Perkins telescope, the largest at Lowell, to operate as well as the 200-inch Hale telescope on California's Mt. Palomar did before its operation, too, was improved in the same way.
With an annual budget of about $2.5 million, Lowell operates four small telescopes at Mars Hill, elevation 7,200 feet, and has five more instruments operating or planned on 7,200-foot Anderson Mesa south of Flagstaff and one in Australia.
On Anderson Mesa are the Perkins scope, owned by Ohio State and Ohio Wesleyan universities, the 42-inch John S. Hall telescope, a 31-inch reflecting telescope, a $17-million instrument under construction called the Navy Prototype Optical Interferometer and a wide-field telescope recently refurbished and moved from Ohio to study approaching comets and asteroids.
The interferometer, to be operated in collaboration with the Naval Research Laboratory and the U.S. Naval Observatory, will use six 20-inch mirrors acting in concert to produce images 100 times sharper than conventional ground telescopes, Millis said.
Lowell, the world's largest privately owned institution of its kind, reflects the course charted by its independent, charismatic founder. Percival Lowell, who died in 1916, stipulated in its endowment that it could not become subsidiary to any educational institution.
Until 1948, research languished, since the observatory existed solely on interest from its endowment. Then trustee Roger Lowell Putnam sought other funding and landed a contract with the National Weather Service for a project to study the sun's stability that continues today.
The observatory was born out of Lowell's fascination with the work of Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who described lines on Mars' surface as "canali." The word literally means "grooves," but was mistakenly translated into English as "canals."
In early 1894, Lowell sent Harvard-trained astronomer A. E. Douglass to Arizona to scout a site from which to observe Mars. In six weeks, Douglass ruled out Tombstone, Tucson, Tempe and Prescott and settled on "Site 11," west of Flagstaff. Five weeks later, he had a wooden dome built for Lowell's two borrowed telescopes.
Lowell, a widely traveled Harvard intellectual, theorized that Schiaparelli's canali were farm irrigation systems. Lowell wrote three books about Mars, though professional astronomers rejected his views.
But later work at the observatory won acclaim.