Clyde William Tombaugh was a distinguished American astronomer known for his groundbreaking discovery of Pluto in 1930, marking the first identification of an object in what we now recognize as the Kuiper belt. Born in Streator, Illinois, Tombaugh's journey into astronomy began with humble origins, constructing his telescopes and displaying an early passion for the cosmos.
His astronomical career took flight in 1929 when, working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, he systematically searched for a trans-Neptunian planet as predicted by Percival Lowell. Tombaugh's meticulous observations, utilizing a blink comparator, led to the discovery of Pluto on February 18, 1930. Despite Pluto's later reclassification as a dwarf planet in 2006, Tombaugh's role in unveiling the distant celestial body remains an enduring achievement.
Beyond Pluto, Tombaugh contributed significantly to the field, discovering 15 asteroids, a periodic comet (274P/Tombaugh–Tenagra), and making extensive observations of variable stars, star clusters, galaxy clusters, and a galaxy supercluster. His contributions earned him accolades such as the Jackson-Gwilt Medal in 1931 and the Rittenhouse Medal in 1990.
Tombaugh's active engagement extended to teaching naval personnel navigation during World War II, working at White Sands Missile Range in the 1950s, and serving as an astronomy professor at New Mexico State University until his retirement in 1973. He maintained an interest in celestial phenomena, conducting a search for Near-Earth objects and advocating for the exploration of space.
Notably, Tombaugh encountered unidentified flying objects (UFOs) on multiple occasions, sharing his observations and emphasizing the need for scientific scrutiny. Despite his curiosity about these phenomena, he maintained a skeptical view, attributing them to natural optical phenomena.
In his later years, Tombaugh co-authored a book with Patrick Moore on Pluto and remained actively involved in astronomical discussions. His instrumental role in the discovery of Pluto led to a posthumous tribute, with a portion of his ashes placed aboard the New Horizons spacecraft, which conducted a historic flyby of Pluto in 2015.
Clyde Tombaugh's legacy extends beyond his astronomical achievements. Tombaugh passed away on January 17, 1997, at the age of 90, leaving behind a lasting impact on the understanding of our solar system and inspiring future generations of astronomers.
- Clyde Tombaugh: Discoverer of Planet Pluto by David Levy
- Clyde Tombaugh on Wikipedia
- Tombaugh's discovery of Pluto - on Phys.org
- Out of the Darkness: The Planet Pluto