Remembering Clyde Tombaugh – Discoverer of Pluto

Tombaugh at his family farm with one of his homemade telescopes – courtesy of Wikipedia

Tombaugh at his family farm with one of his homemade telescopes – courtesy of Wikipedia

The New Horizon Mission to Pluto has stirred up memories from Whole Earth’s collective past. Back in 1987, we hosted Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, in our Houston Shepherd store. Tombaugh was in town to present a talk “Discovering the Planet Pluto” at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, an event which we co-sponsored. The presentation included a discussion of the process and equipment used to find the ninth planet and a slide show of some of the actual discovery photos. He also spoke about the prospects of finding a tenth planet on the outer reaches of our solar system. Earlier in the afternoon Tombaugh visited the Shepherd store for a public reception in support of his Clyde Tombaugh Scholars Program which provided funding for post-doctoral studies for outstanding young astronomers.

Tombaugh got his start in astronomy making telescopes while working on his family farm. He wrote to the Lowell Observatory asking for help and instead received a job offer. He spent the next year painstakingly photographing successive segments of the night sky, taken several days apart, to detect movement of the individual dots against the background of the more stationary stars. And, in 1930, at the age of 24, he discovered Pluto. It was several years after his discovery that Tombaugh was able to attend the University of Kansas and receive his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Astronomy.

Discovery of the Planet Pluto

courtesy of Wikepedia

In his later career, he identified a number of previously unknown star clusters, asteroids and variable stars, and noted the patchy distribution of galaxies. He worked on the V-2 rocket, the precursor to America’s space program; spent many years searching for the tenth planet on beyond Pluto; and gave serious consideration to the question of UFOs.

When the New Horizon’s spacecraft was launched in 2006, it carried a small portion of Clyde Tombaugh’s cremated remains beneath a medallion commemorating his role as “the discoverer of Pluto and the solar system’s ‘third zone.’” As the spacecraft draws near its destination, we can imagine Tombaugh’s delight at having a front row seat for the newest discoveries about Pluto.