Clyde Tombaugh

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Clyde Tombaugh : biography

February 4, 1906 – January 17, 1997 (aged 90)

In 1949, Tombaugh had also told the Naval missile director at White Sands Missile Range, Commander Robert McLaughlin, that he had seen a bright flash on Mars on August 27, 1941, which he now attributed to an atomic blast. Tombaugh also noted that the first atomic bomb tested in New Mexico would have lit up the dark side of the Earth like a neon sign and that Mars was coincidentally quite close at the time, the implication apparently being that the atomic test would have been visible from Mars.

In June 1952, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer acting as a scientific consultant to the Air Force’s Project Blue Book UFO study, secretly conducted a survey of fellow astronomers on UFO sightings and attitudes while attending an astronomy convention. Tombaugh and four other astronomers, including Dr. Lincoln LaPaz of the University of New Mexico, told Hynek about their sightings. Tombaugh also told Hynek that his telescopes were at the Air Force’s disposal for taking photos of UFOs, if he was properly alerted.

Sources

  • Falk, Dan, "More than a one-hit wonder", Astronomy, February 2006, 40–45.
  • David H. Levy Clyde Tombaugh: Discoverer of the Planet Pluto (Tucson, Ariz.: University of Arizona Press, 1991). ISBN 0-8165-1148-9; also Sky Publishing Corporation, March 2006

Biography

Tombaugh was born in Streator, Illinois. "I was born on a farm near Streator, Illinois, on 4 February 1906." After his family moved to Burdett, Kansas, Tombaugh’s plans for attending college were frustrated when a hailstorm ruined his family’s farm crops. Starting in 1926, he built several telescopes with lenses and mirrors he ground himself. He sent drawings of Jupiter and Mars, as well as his telescopes to the Lowell Observatory. These resulted in a job offer. Tombaugh was employed at the Lowell Observatory from 1929 to 1945.

Following his discovery of Pluto, Tombaugh earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in astronomy from the University of Kansas in 1936 and 1938. During World War II he taught naval personnel navigation at Northern Arizona University. He worked at White Sands Missile Range in the early 1950s, and taught astronomy at New Mexico State University from 1955 until his retirement in 1973.

The asteroid 1604 Tombaugh, discovered in 1931, is named after him. He discovered hundreds of asteroids, beginning with 2839 Annette in 1929, mostly as a by-product of his search for Pluto and his searches for other celestial objects. Tombaugh named some of them after his wife, children and grandchildren. The Royal Astronomical Society awarded him the Jackson-Gwilt Medal in 1931.

In August 1992, JPL scientist Robert Staehle called Tombaugh, requesting permission to visit his planet. "I told him he was welcome to it," Tombaugh later remembered, "though he’s got to go one long, cold trip." The call eventually led to the launch of the New Horizons space probe to Pluto in 2006.

Death

Tombaugh died on January 17, 1997 in Las Cruces, New Mexico, at the age of 90. Approximately one ounce of his ashes is being carried on the New Horizons space probe. The container includes the inscription: "Interned (sic)http://thegeektastics.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Tombaugh-Memorial.jpg 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)".

Tombaugh was survived by his widow, Patricia (1912–2012), and their children: daughter Annette and son Alden. Tombaugh was an active Unitarian-Universalist.

Near-Earth satellite search

Tombaugh’s offer may have led to his involvement in a search for near-Earth satellites, first announced in late 1953 and sponsored by the Army Office of Ordnance Research. Another public statement was made on the search in March 1954 (photo at right), emphasizing the rationale that such an orbiting object would serve as a natural space station. However, according to Donald Keyhoe, later director of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), the real reason for the sudden search was because two near-Earth orbiting objects had been picked up on new long-range radar in the summer of 1953, according to his Pentagon source.