Clyde Tombaugh discovered the dwarf planet Pluto in 1930. He also discovered a number of asteroids and minor planets, and he was one of the supporters of further research to better understand UFOs or unidentified flying objects.
Early Life and Educational Background
Clyde William Tombaugh was born on the 4th of February in 1906 in Streator, Illinois. His father was Muron Dealvo Tombaugh, a farmer and his mother was Adella Pearl Chritton. When he was an infant, his family moved to Burdett in Kansas. Unfortunately, his plan to go to college had to be postponed because of a hailstorm which ruined his family’s crops.
Not wanting to be idle, in 1926 Tombaugh built his own telescopes using different mirrors and lenses. He sent detailed observations of Mars and Jupiter to the Lowell Observatory and this opened an opportunity for him to work there. The creation of his very first telescope when he was just 20 years old had set him on the path of discovering the very first dwarf planet known to man.
In the interim, Tombaugh attained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in astronomy in 1936 and 1938 from the University of Kansas.
Tombaugh 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 made this discovery before he finished his degree.
Tombaugh discovered Pluto when he was performing a systematic search for Planet X—a planet beyond Neptune which was predicted by William Pickering and Percival Lowell. It was thought the planet may lie in the Kuiper belt. This is an area at the edge of our Solar System consisting mainly of small frozen bodies or remnants from when the Solar System was formed. Tombaugh achieved this by using the 13-inch observatory astrograph which took pictures of the same area of the sky on different nights. Using a blink comparator, he would see a potential planet by shifting between the two frames. Stars would be stationary while a planet would jump from one position to another.
His observations on February 18th 1930 on a pair of images taken a month earlier led to the confirmation that a ninth planet had been discovered. On March 13th 1930 the discovery of the new planet was announced. Interestingly, the planet’s name had been suggested by an 11-year-old English girl, Venetia Burney. This suggestion won over several others because Pluto is the name used for the Greek god of the underworld who had the ability to make himself invisible—similar to how Pluto had remained undiscovered for so long. Also, it was the first two letters of the initials for the astronomer Percival Lowell.
As well as his major discovery, Tombaugh discovered over ten other minor planets in the Kuiper belt. While working at the Lowell Observatory, his discoveries included hundreds of stars and asteroids and two comets. He also discovered new star and galaxy clusters, including a super cluster of galaxies. Overall, he cataloged over 30,000 celestial objects before he left in 1943.
War Time Career
Tombaugh worked for the Lowell Observatory until he was called for military service in 1943. During World War II, Clyde taught naval navigation for the U.S. Navy at Arizona State College for two years.
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. This time he participated in ballistics research at the White Sands Missile Range in Las Cruces, New Mexico. There, he supervised optical instrumentation used for testing new missiles.
During his career in the military, he designed several new instruments including the Intercept Ground Optical Recorder (IGOR), a tracking telescope used in the White Sands Missile Range to provide photographic records of missile performance.
Clyde remained at the White Sands Missile Range for 9 years, leaving in 1955. He was 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 astonished and petrified him. He also reported seeing unexplained green fireballs and had other sightings.
Personal Life and Latter Years
In his lifetime, Clyde made himself 30 telescopes, being unimpressed with store-bought ones. While he was working at Lowell Observatory, he met Patricia Edson in Arizona whom he married. They had two children, Alden and Annette.
After his career in the White Sands Missile Range ended, he became a member of the New Mexico State University faculty until his retirement in 1973. He travelled to and from Canada and the United States to give lectures and to raise money for the scholarship fund of New Mexico State University for students taking post-doctoral studies in astronomy.
Pluto was eventually re-classified in 2006 as a dwarf planet after a better 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 lived a full life with many of his years dedicated to astronomy. He died at the age of 90 on January 17, 1997 and some of his ashes were placed inside the spacecraft New Horizons. The asteroid 1604 Tombaugh, discovered in 1931, is named after him.