Although Pluto is no longer counted as part of the solar system, Clyde Tombaugh was one of the American astronomers who made significant contributions to this scientific field. His most notable achievement was his discovery of the dwarf planet which was called Pluto back in 1930. He had also been able to discover a number of asteroids and he was one of the supporters of further research to better understand UFOs or unidentified flying objects.
Early Life and Educational Background
He was born on the 4th of February in 1906 in Streator, Illinois as Clyde William Tombaugh. A few years later, Clyde’s family had to move to Burdett, Kansas. This was around the same time he was planning to attend college. Unfortunately, this plan to go to college had been postponed because a hailstorm ruined their family’s crops.
Not wanting to be idle, Clyde built his own telescopes using different mirrors and lenses. This was in 1926, and he even sent drawings of Mars and Jupiter to the Lowell Observatory. This opened an opportunity for him to work there from 1929 up to 1945. His creation of his very first telescope when he was just 20 years old set him on the path of discovering the very first dwarf planet known to man.
In the interim, Clyde was able to earn his bachelor’s as well as master’s degrees in astronomy in the years 1936 and 1938 from the University of Kansas.
He worked at the Lowell Observatory for 14 years, having impressed the astronomers who were working there with his drawings of Mars and Jupiter. It was his discovery of Pluto on the 18th of February, 1930 that earned him a permanent place in the roster of prominent astronomers. He was able to make this discovery even before he finished any of his degrees!
He was able to make this discovery of Pluto when he had been given the task to perform a systematic search for Planet X—a trans-Neptunian planet which had been predicted by William Pickering and Percival Lowell. Clyde achieved this by using the 13-inch astrograph of the observatory to take pictures of the same area of the sky from different nights. Using a blink comparator, one would see a potential planet by shifting between two frames. Stars would be stationary while a planet will jump from one position to another.
His subsequent observation led to the confirmation that this had been Planet X as predicted by the other two astronomers, and that it also had an orbit which lay past Neptune’s. Interestingly, the planet’s name had been suggested by the 11-year-old English girl Venetia Burney. This suggestion won over several other suggestions because it is the same name used for the Roman god of the underworld who had the ability to make himself invisible—probably similar to how Pluto hadn’t been seen earlier. Also, its first two letters had the initials of Percival Lowell.
After this major discovery, he was able to discover other objects in the Kuiper belt. While working at the Lowell Observatory, his discoveries included hundreds of stars and asteroids along with two comets. He was also able to discover new star clusters and galaxy clusters, including a super cluster of galaxies. Overall, he was able to count more than 29,000 galaxies.
War Time Career
He worked for the Lowell Observatory until he was called for service when the World War II took place. Clyde taught at the U.S. Navy at the Arizona State College. He taught his students about navigation. He worked there for two years from 1943.
When the war was over, he planned to return to the Lowell Observatory, but they were no longer able to hire him because of a shortage in funding. Come 1946, he worked for the military once more and this time he participated in the ballistics research done at the White Sands Missile Range in Las Cruces, New Mexico. There, he supervised optical instrumentation which was used for testing new missiles.
During his career in the military, he was able to design several new instruments including IGOR—the Intercept Ground Optical Recorder which was a super camera used in the White Sands Missile Range for 30 years after his development.
Clyde remained working at the White Sands Missile Range for 9 years and he left in 1955. He had been given the medal of the Pioneers for his contributions in the missile range.
Interest in UFOs
Clyde was the most notable astronomer to have actually reported seeing UFOs, supporting the extraterrestrial hypothesis. He described the UFOs he saw near Las Cruces in Mexico as having six to eight lights in rectangular shape which had petrified him with astonishment. He also reported seeing unexplained green fireballs apart from his other sightings.
Personal Life and Latter Years
In his lifetime, Clyde was able to make 30 telescopes by himself, having been unimpressed with the store-bought ones. While he was working at the Lowell Observatory, he met Patricia Edson in Arizona whom he married later on. They had two children by the names of Alden and Annette.
After his career in the White Sands Missile Range ended, he became a member of the New Mexico State University faculty up until his retirement in 1973. He also went to and from Canada and the United States to give lectures and raise money for the scholarship fund of New Mexico State University for those taking post-doctoral studies in astronomy.
Pluto had been re-classified as a dwarf planet after a deeper understanding of the objects in the Kuiper belt was established. According to his wife, although Clyde would have been disappointed because of the reclassification had he been alive to see it (he had been resisting attempts to remove Pluto as one of the planets when he was alive), he would have accepted this decision because “he was a scientist” and he would understand the basis of the decision.
He had lived a full life with much of his years having been dedicated to astronomy. He died at the age of 90 on January 17, 1997 and a certain amount of his ashes was placed inside the spacecraft called New Horizons.