The Pluto Files

My Dad Discovered Pluto

The date February 18, 1930 probably doesn't stand out particularly in your mind, but it certainly does in mine. For that's the day my father, Clyde Tombaugh, a farmboy-turned-astronomer, discovered Pluto, becoming the first American to find a planet. (Or a dwarf planet, as it's now officially known.) In this series of old family photos, follow the trajectory of my father's remarkable career, which, in its way, began and ended at Pluto. Or will end, 'round about the year 2015.—Alden Tombaugh

Alden Tombaugh is a retired banker who lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He has an asteroid named after him, 2941 Alden, discovered by his father.


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A farmboy's dream
In 1928, when my grandfather Muron took this picture, my father was a 22-year-old would-be astronomer living on the family farm near Burdett, Kansas. My dad had just finished making the homemade 9" telescope seen here. He had built it from pieces of old farm machinery, the axle from a 1910 Buick, and other spare parts. That year, my father used his optically superb telescope to create detailed drawings of the known planets. He then sent these drawings to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, hoping for a critique. Instead he got a job offer.



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The find of a lifetime
The observatory was looking for someone to continue the search first begun by its founder, Percival Lowell, in 1905. Until his death in 1916, Lowell had sought what he called "planet X." This was an as-yet undiscovered planet whose gravity, Lowell believed, was perturbing the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. My father, seen here in 1928, began meticulously examining images of a portion of the night sky where Lowell thought planet X might be. On February 18, 1930 at about 4 p.m., months of hard work paid off: My dad discovered a moving dot of light that would soon be known to all the world as Pluto.



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An astronomer's life
My father worked for the Lowell Observatory for the next 15 years. Along the way, he discovered many new astronomical entities, including a nova, a comet, a supercluster of galaxies, and more than a dozen asteroids. He also earned a bachelor's degree on a scholarship in 1936 and a master's in astronomy in 1939. This is my dad in about 1933 with two telescopes he built. The long one is a 7" reflector he built for his Uncle Lee in 1927, while the one he holds is the first so-called "rich-field telescope" built in America. (RFT's have low power but offer wide fields of view.)



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Aiding the space program
In 1945, the Lowell Observatory let my father go, ostensibly for financial reasons. So the following year he began working at New Mexico's White Sands Proving Grounds (now White Sands Missile Range), developing and installing optical-tracking telescopes for the burgeoning space program. In this photo, my dad (left) appears in about 1950 with military associates at a new site near the top of the San Andres Mountains. He had assembled a missile-tracking theodolite that was about to be mounted at the site.



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A university career
In 1955, my father joined the faculty of New Mexico State University. He founded the school's astronomy program and went on to teach there until he retired in 1973. Here he is in about 1956, with a 12" reflector he had assembled to his specifications at the university's Physical Science Laboratory. Later, he shipped this telescope to Quito, Ecuador for use in the search for near-Earth objects—essential work for U.S. space-exploration efforts. Later still, university astronomers used the telescope under his direction for planetary research. Note the fold-away sides of the telescope enclosure.



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A star partier
My father settled in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he delighted in throwing star parties. If those invited enjoyed a good pun, they were in for a treat, for my dad was known for his puns. Once, when asked how spending all night for months searching for Pluto had been, he said it was tedious but beat pitching hay on his father's farm, adding, "I'd had my hay day." This photo shows members of the Las Cruces Astronomical Society in about 1957, gazing through my father's 12" reflector in his backyard.



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His double 16"
In 1960, my dad built a double 16" reflecting telescope for personal planetary research and general observation. For years he had ground his own mirrors, usually in our kitchen; altogether he made 36 separate optics in his lifetime. He had originally ground one of this telescope's mirrors as far back as 1944, but professional obligations delayed the completion of the 16" until 1960. Here, in his backyard in 1962, he watches as his granddaughter Kathleen gives the telescope a try.



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The Grazer Gazer
Here's my father about 1990 with his 10" short focal length reflector. Mounted on a lawnmower housing, it is whimsically referred to as the "Grazer Gazer." He built this telescope in 1983 to take to local star parties in the back of his pickup truck. The lawnmower's wheels and handle made the telescope easy to maneuver. My dad lived for another seven years after this photo was taken, passing on in 1997 at the age of 90.



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Pluto becomes a dwarf
In 2006, the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto, separating it from the eight other "classical planets" and placing it with two other newly found "dwarf planets." When the Associated Press asked her how her husband would have felt, my mother Patricia Tombaugh, whom my dad married in 1934, said, "He was a scientist. He would understand they had a real problem when they started finding several of these things flying around the place." In this 2009 photo, my mother stands before the double 16" reflector at the ranch of its new owner near Animas, New Mexico.



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My dad goes to Pluto
As I write this, some of my father's ashes are on their way to Pluto aboard the New Horizons spacecraft. Launched in 2006, the spacecraft, if all goes to plan, will make a flyby of Pluto in 2015. The container contains this inscription: "Interred 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)." Here, my dad poses with his beloved 16" reflector, about 1963.



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