• A rendering of the New Horizons spacecraft.

Kansan who discovered Pluto had storied career and is 'along for voyage'

Monday, July 13, 2015

Annette Tombaugh's voice filled with excitement as she described newly sent images of Pluto. That's the planet her father, the late Clyde Tombaugh, discovered on Feb. 18, 1930.

"Pluto is an absolutely gorgeous little planet," Tombaugh said Friday afternoon from her Las Cruces, New Mexico, home. "It has a heart on it" and "has kind of a mauve, reddish color," she said. "We weren't expecting that."

Pluto's close-up comes Tuesday morning. The spacecraft New Horizons, launched nine and half years ago, will fly less than 8,000 miles from Pluto.

"If you lived on Pluto, we could see your house," said Tombaugh, 74.

Reared in Kansas

Clyde William Tombaugh was born Feb. 4, 1906, in Streator, Illinois. That community boasts it is the hometown of the astronomer. Activities to mark the history-making event included a "Pluto Polka Party" in downtown Streator Saturday.

But in 1922, the Tombaugh family moved to Kansas, settling on a wheat farm outside Burdett in Pawnee County. Tombaugh graduated from Burdett High School in 1925, notes a state historical marker in Burdett.

"Our connection to Kansas is still there," Annette Tombaugh said.

Tombaugh relatives live in Kansas, and the observatory at the University of Kansas bears the name of Clyde W. Tombaugh. Each Feb. 18 is "Clyde Day" there and students wear "Pluto Rocks" T-shirts, said Barbara Anthony-Twarog, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Kansas.

"We've always been insanely proud," Anthony-Twarog said of Tombaugh.

Tombaugh earned bachelor's and master's degrees from KU, and his master's thesis dealt with a telescope at KU. Years later, he returned to the university for the dedication of the building top of the observatory. He also spoke on occasions to the university students, and he loved to tell the story of the discovery, Anthony-Twarog said.

Pluto mission
Pluto mission

Making a telescope

"Crop failure and hard times in the farming community," said Tombaugh's son Alden Tombaugh, 70, Las Cruces, made it impossible for Clyde Tombaugh to go to college after high school.

He worked on the farm but his fascination of space was strong. An uncle introduced him to telescopes and Tombaugh ground the mirrors for a telescope he built at the farm. His path spiraled upward after he wrote the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and enclosed sketches of Jupiter and Mars.

It offered him a job, and he took the train to Flagstaff. He arrived in January 1929, without enough money for a return trip to Kansas.

Percival Lowell, founder of the observatory, was convinced there was a planet beyond Neptune, which had been discovered in 1846. Tombaugh peered at hundreds of pairs of large photographic glass plates to see if he could detect movement in space. And he did. On the afternoon of Feb. 18, 1930, Tombaugh found the evidence of Planet X he was seeking on images captured in January.

The finding was announced March 13, 1930. The farm boy from Burdett became famous, and received a scholarship to the University of Kansas.

On to KU

"If it hadn't been for Pluto, I wouldn't exist. I'm truly a child of Pluto," Annette Tombaugh said.

Entering the University of Kansas in 1932, Clyde Tombaugh became friends with fellow student James Edson. When Tombaugh wanted to move out of the dorm into a smaller place, Edson told him about a boarding house run by his mother. Tombaugh met James Edson's younger sister, Patricia. The two wed in 1934, and the union lasted 62 years. Patricia "Patsy" Edson Tombaugh also earned a degree from KU. She died in 2012.

"Jayhawkers have always been very important to us," said Annette Tombaugh. It would have pleased their parents if she and her brother had gone to KU, she said, but it was more economical to attend college in New Mexico, which they did.

Tombaugh did research and taught during his career. He was on the faculty at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, for nearly 20 years, retiring in 1972.

After Tombaugh's death Jan. 17, 1997, a television crew traveled to Las Cruces to interview his widow and the two Tombaugh children, Annette and Alden, who, respectively, had careers in elementary education and banking. The family showed some of the telescopes Tombaugh had constructed, including one that incorporated car parts and farm equipment and another one mounted on the platform of an old lawnmower, making it portable.

People who lived during the Great Depression were adept at "economizing everything," Alden Tombaugh said last week.

"He always made use of whatever was available to put his telescopes together," Tombaugh said.

Fitting name

Eleven-year-old Venetia Burney, an English schoolgirl, proposed the name given to the newly discovered planet: Pluto.

The astronomer liked it.

"He thought the name fit pretty well," Alden Tombaugh said. Pluto was the mythological deity of the underworld, and the underworld was thought to be the furthest away from Earth, so that kind of fit, Tombaugh said.

Tombaugh knew about early plans to send a probe to Pluto, but died before New Horizons' launch on Jan. 19, 2006, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. His widow and his two children witnessed the event.

It was the fastest rocket ever to leave earth, Annette Tombaugh said. If you blinked, you missed it, she said.

Later in 2006, International Astronomical Union members voted to define Pluto as a dwarf planet, a step down from classical planets such as Saturn and Mars. The action proved controversial, and the Tombaughs think the vote, occurring on the last day of the gathering when not all members were present, was flawed.

"Both of us feel that there should have been more science involved," Alden Tombaugh said.

Ashes into space

On board New Horizons is a very small amount of the cremated remains of Clyde Tombaugh.

It wasn't the family's idea. The mission reached out to them. The family agreed.

"He always said that if he ever had the opportunity, he would love to visit the planets or surrounding solar system, and I guess that a part of him is actually going to be able to do that now," Alden Tombaugh said.

"It is a great honor that he is still considered to be tied to the project," he said.

The rest of the astronomer's ashes were scattered, Annette Tombaugh said. "Of course by an observatory, because where else could we do that," she said.

The family didn't write the inscription also carried into space, but Annette Tombaugh said it was "really, really nice." It described Tombaugh as "Adelle and Muron's boy, Patricia's husband, Annette and Alden's father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend."

The New Horizons team was dealt a scare July 4, when an "anomaly" occurred and the spacecraft switched into safe mode, Annette Tombaugh said. The team was breathing easier last week, but for Annette Tombaugh, it was hard to put into words Friday the sense of rising anticipation.

"It's closing the distance very fast now," she said.