|Pluto snapped by New Horizons on July 13, 2015 at a distance of 476,000 miles before the fly by. NASA photo.|
Today after a journey of nine and a half years, years the NASA space probe New Horizons will reach and fly by distant Pluto and its moons Charon, Hydra, Nix, Styx, and Kerberos taking snap shots as it goes. Since the space craft’s launch on January 16, 2006 Pluto lost its designation as the ninth planet of the Solar System, was demoted to a dwarf planetoid, and then given its own category as a plutoid. All the while the icy object sailed on serenely unconcerned in its chaotic and elliptical orbit at the edges of Solar System.
New Horizons will be carrying a passenger of sorts—some of the ashes of its discoverer, Clyde W. Tombaugh.
Tombaugh was born to a farming family on February 4, 1906 in Streator, Illinois. When he was 14 years old the family moved to a farm near Burdett, Kansas on the arid, treeless high plains of the western part of the state. His father Munron was a passionate amateur astronomer who made his own telescopes from hand ground mirrors and parts of farm equipment. The vast, clear skies of western Kansas far from the light pollution of any city revealed the star splattered Milky Way in all of its glory. Together father and son spent hours scanning the sky and dreaming.
A big part of the dream was sending young Clyde to college to study astronomy. Clyde was a shy academic star at Burdett High School where he graduated in 1926. But after successive years of bad weather, particularly one in which hail completely destroyed the wheat crop the family could not afford to finance his studies. Clyde stayed on the farm.
|Clyde Tombaugh in 1928 on his family's Kansas farm with his home made 9 inch telescope.|
In 1928 he built a new telescope, far more powerful than any his father had made. It had an 8 inch mirror and 79 inch focus. Clyde proudly named it the Newtonian Telescope. He turned his attention to the planets and began making detailed drawings from his observations. With his father’s encouragement he sent several of his drawings of Mars and Jupiter to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, home to one of the largest telescopes in the world.
The staff at Lowell was impressed by Tombaugh skills, particularly his attention to detail. As luck would have it they were just then looking for an assistant, preferably a talented amateur—read someone who would work even cheaper than a graduate student—to operate its new photographic telescope and do the tedious work of examining and analyzing the thousands of images of the night sky that it would produce. They offered the Kansan the job on a three month trial basis.
For a lanky 22 year old who had hardly ever been off the farm, the experience of leaving home and traveling alone to what seemed like an alien landscape in the mountains of Arizona was intimidating. But he threw himself into his work with enthusiasm. He soon mastered the delicate adjustments needed to use the telescope and camera. He was handed one particular assignment—to search the sky for the mysterious Planet X which had been postulated and fruitlessly searched for by Percival Lowell, founder of the observatory. Lowell had discovered discrepancies in the orbit of Uranus which he believed could only be accounted for by the existence and gravitational pull of an undiscovered planet. He already had found success discovering distant bodies. Now in the course of his search he found and named more than a dozen asteroids, the first in October 1929 named Annette in honor of his sister. There would be 15 discoveries in all in addition to photographing and studying about 800 asteroids in the course of his career.
Impressed, his employers extended his trial job. He would remain at the Lowell Observatory working seasonally in the clear fall and winter months until 1945. Their faith in him quickly paid off.
|Comparing these two photos, Tombaugh spotted a moving object--Pluto.|
Focusing on a quadrant of the sky where Lowell believed the planet might be found, Tombaugh’s method was simple, though painstaking. Using the observatory’s 13 inch astrograph photographic telescope he took photos of the same sections of the sky several days apart and then compared the images side by side on a device called the blink comparator to detect objects that have moved in contrast to the steady shine of background stars. There were hundreds of images to compare and it took enormous concentration to pick out sometime dim specks of light that may have moved. In this way Tombaugh had already discovered several asteroids.
Then on February 18, 1930 examining photos taken weeks earlier, Tombaugh noticed motion of a distant object. Calculations soon confirmed that it lay beyond the orbit of Neptune which ruled out the possibility that it was an asteroid. Tombaugh and his colleagues were sure that they had found a ninth planet, perhaps confirming the Planet X theory.
The public announcement was an international sensation and Tombaugh was an instant celebrity. Interest remained high when the Observatory launched an international contest to name the body. The winner was an 11 year old English school girl, Venitia Burney who in keeping with the tradition of naming planets for Roman Gods suggested Pluto for the god of the underworld who also had the power of invisibility. Observatory officials also liked the fact that the first two letters of the name and thus its abbreviation were also the initials of Percival Lowell. So Pluto it was.
The buzz around the newly named planet was so intense that Walt Disney adopted the name for Mickey Mouse’s pet dog, previously unnamed or called Rover in one film. Pluto the Pup made his screen debut under that name in The Moose Hunt in early 1931.
|World famous at 24, Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory.|
As the hoopla died down Tombaugh and his colleagues realized that Pluto’s mass was too small to effect the orbits of Neptune or Uranus. It could not be Planet X. The search for the elusive mystery planet resumed. In the course of the search Tombaugh would add to his collection of asteroids and also be credited with the discovery of the periodic comet 274P/Tombaugh–Tenagra, hundreds of variable stars, star clusters, galaxy clusters, and a galaxy supercluster.
The discovery also changed his life in important ways. The University of Kansas was happy to offer the distinguished native son a full scholarship enabling him to earn his bachelor’s degree in astronomy in 1936 and complete his masters. The Lowell Observatory began to pay him not lavishly, but at least a livable wage enabling him to marry his college sweetheart Patricia Edson in 1934. It was a legendarily happy and productive marriage and partnership which produced two children, Annette and Alden.
During World War II Tombaugh taught Navigation to Navy officers at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. While he was there he completed a second post graduate degree. After the war and completing his degree, Tombaugh ended his long association with the Lowell Observatory and went to work for some years at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
In the early ‘50’ he became increasingly uncomfortable at the proving ground and its association with possible nuclear annihilation even though he was conducting scientific research not directly related to weapons development. In 1955 he leapt at the opportunity to teach at New Mexico State University at Las Cruses, New Mexico. In his long career there he was a beloved and admired teacher and mentor to many students rising to be Department Chair. He continued to make break through astronomical discoveries, specializing in the stars and galaxies of deep space.
Tombaugh created quite a stir and no little controversy in 1957 when he became one of the first prominent scientists to call for an open and un-biased scientific investigation of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs). He had three times personally observed lights in the sky which he could not explain by known phenomena. He was careful not to make claims that could not be substantiated about the experiences, but highlighting his experience as a careful and trained observer of the night sky. He told the Alamogordo Daily News in a story taken nationally by the Associated Press (AP):
Although our own solar system is believed to support no other life than on Earth, other stars in the galaxy may have hundreds of thousands of habitable worlds. Races on these worlds may have been able to utilize the tremendous amounts of power required to bridge the space between the stars…These things [I observed], which do appear to be directed, are unlike any other phenomena I ever observed. Their apparent lack of obedience to the ordinary laws of celestial motion gives credence.
Tombaugh and his colleague at New Mexico State Lincoln La Paz were recruited as early as 1954 by the Army Office of Ordinance Research to look into the possibility of the existence of small near Earth satellites which theoretically might be used as a sort of space station either by earthly space explorers or alien visitors. Three years later one former official of the investigation announced that two “naturally occurring objects” had been found orbiting 400 and 600 miles above the Earth and naming at least La Paz as a discover. Both men, bound by secrecy, at first refused to comment. La Paz finally issued a public statement that the report was in error “in every detail.” Tombaugh told Popular Mechanics in 1955 that the reports of the discovery were not correct and that there “ is no connection between the search program and the reports of so-called flying saucers.” In 1957 he told scientific conference on meteors that he had concluded a four year investigation but that nothing had come from his search for natural close-in satellites. Subsequent thorough mapping of objects orbiting the earth—active and dead man made satellites, space junk, small meteors temporarily captured by Earth’s gravitational pull—have shown that the claimed natural but artificial satellites never existed.
Tombaugh and his school teacher wife Patricia settled comfortably in Las Cruses while he was working at the Army Missile Testing Grounds and remained there for the rest of their lives. In 1955 they became co-founders the Unitarian Fellowship of Las Cruses, now known as the Unitarian Universalist Church of Las Cruses. Many of the early members were Tombaugh’s students and fellow faculty members. The couple had been attending Unitarian worship when they could find it since their student days in Lawrence, Kansas. They remained dedicated and active members of the congregation the rest of their lives, serving in many capacities. Both were Congregational presidents—Patricia several times. Clyde led many adult education programs and frequently occupied the pulpit as a lay leader, especially before the congregation called professional clergy.
Some people, informed of Tombaugh’s deeply religious life are puzzled that a scientist like him was even active in a church. But in the 1940’s, ‘50’ and ‘60’s many scientists and aero-space engineers found a congenial home in Unitarianism. They helped found churches and fellowships in communities like Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Los Alamos, New Mexico; Cocoa, Florida (Cape Canaveral); and Livermore, California as well as joining existing congregations in college towns from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Berkley, California. They helped imbue mid-century Unitarian Universalism with an open and inquiring humanism that respects an awe of the universe and all of its interconnected parts and often a deep commitment to social justice, peace, and ecological issues. Their continued influence remains strong even as Unitarian Universalism as a whole has embraced wider spirituality in recent years. In addition to Tombaugh figures like Buckmaster Fuller, Linus Pauling, and Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, English Unitarian inventor of the World Wide Web are representative of this strand of Unitarianism.
|The Tombaugh Memorial Window at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Las Cruses, New Mexico.|
In 2001 Tombaugh’s congregation memorialized him with a five panel stained glass window eight feet high and 18 feet wide designed by Arthur J. Tatkoski which depict scenes form his life and celebrates the universe and Solar System. It is inscribed, “That all souls shall grow into harmony with creation.” Located on the east side of the church, the window is designed to catch the morning light of the rising sun.
In Clyde Tombaugh, by then in retirement was contacted by Robert Staehle of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California with a request to “visit your planet.” Tombaugh laughed and told him. “ he was welcome to it, though he’s got to go one long, cold trip.” Out of that conversation grew what became New Horizons probe.
S. Alan Stern eventually came to leadership of the team that designed, built, and planned the mission to visit not only Pluto, but to continue on into the Kupier Belt beyond in search of other objects. It was the discovery of Kupier Belt and objects orbiting in it in 1992. It turned out the Pluto was one of the largest of over 100,000 objects each more than a minimum of 62 miles in diameter in what has been described as sort of an outer asteroid belt. It was the discovery of Eris, a scattered disc planetoid on the edge of the Belt which has more mass than Pluto but less volume in 2005 that led to the eventual scientific ruling that reclassified Pluto, Eris, and two other identified Trans-Neptune Objects (TNOs), Haumea and Makemake as Dwarf Planets later that years.
Tombaugh died at age 90 on January 17, 1997. His remains were cremated and after a memorial service at the Las Cruses church a small portion of the ashes were reserved for a special purpose. They were place in a small capsule with the inscription:
Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system's “third zone”. Adelle and Muron's boy, Patricia’s husband, Annette and Alden’s father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend: Clyde W. Tombaugh (1906–1997)
|New Horizons launched atop an Atlas V rocket.|
It was nestled inside New Horizons when the probe was launched January 2006 with his family looking on. A few months into the mission Pluto was officially reclassified to noisy protest by many scientists and Tombaugh’s devoted followers and fans.
Patricia Tombaugh died on January 12, 2012 at the age of 99. Her ashes were interred next to the rest of her husband’s in Las Cruses.