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If you like Clyde Tombaugh's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Sylvia Earle,
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Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Clyde Tombaugh in the Achievement Curriculum section:
The Cosmos

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Tombaugh Collection
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Clyde Tombaugh
Clyde Tombaugh
Profile of Clyde Tombaugh Biography of Clyde Tombaugh Interview with Clyde Tombaugh Clyde Tombaugh Photo Gallery

Clyde Tombaugh Biography

Discoverer of Planet Pluto

Clyde Tombaugh Date of birth: February 4, 1906
Date of death: January 17, 1997

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  Clyde Tombaugh

Clyde W. Tombaugh was born in 1906 in Streator, Illinois. He attended high school in Streator and moved with his family to a farm in Western Kansas, where a hailstorm destroyed the family's crops, dashing his hopes of attending college. Tombaugh continued to study on his own, teaching himself solid geometry and trigonometry.

In 1926, at the age of 20, Tombaugh built his first telescope. Dissatisfied with the result, he determined to master optics, and built two more telescopes in the next two years, grinding his own lenses and mirrors, and further honing his skills.

Clyde Tombaugh Biography Photo
Using these homemade telescope, he made drawings of the planets Mars and Jupiter and sent them to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. The astronomers at Lowell were so impressed with the young amateur's powers of observation they invited him to work at the Observatory.

Clyde Tombaugh stayed at the Lowell Observatory for the next 14 years. The young astronomer earned a permanent place in the history of science when he discovered the planet Pluto on February 18, 1930. Pluto orbit lies 3 billion miles from the sun; it takes Pluto two and a half earthly centuries to complete a single orbit around the sun. Seen from Pluto, the sun appears merely as one bright star among many. Pluto's moon, Charon, is nearly half the size of the planet itself and orbits Pluto once in every 6.4 Earth days. From Pluto, Charon appears eight times larger than our moon appears from the Earth.

Clyde Tombaugh Biography Photo
In 1932 he entered the University of Kansas where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in 1936. He continued to work at Lowell Observatory during the summers and after graduation he returned to work at the Observatory full-time. In 1938, he received his master's degree from the University of Kansas.

During his years at Lowell Observatory, Tombaugh discovered hundreds of new variable stars, hundreds of new asteroids and two comets. He found new star clusters, clusters of galaxies including one super cluster of galaxies. In all, he counted over 29,000 galaxies. Tombaugh remained at Lowell until he was called to service during World War II. The astronomer taught navigation to the U.S. Navy at Arizona State College in Flagstaff from 1943 to 1945.

After the war, Lowell Observatory was unable to rehire Tombaugh due to a funding shortfall, so in 1946, he returned to work for the military at the ballistics research laboratories of the White Sands Missile Range in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he supervised the optical instrumentation used in testing new missiles.

In the course of this work, Tombaugh designed many new instruments, including a super camera called the IGOR (Intercept Ground Optical Recorder) which remained in use at White Sands for 30 years before it was finally improved upon.

After nine years at White Sands, Tombaugh left the missile range in 1955. He was awarded the medal of the Pioneers of White Sands Missile Range.

From 1955 until his retirement in 1973, Clyde Tombaugh was on the faculty at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. In later years, Tombaugh crisscrossed the United States and Canada giving lectures to raise money for New Mexico State University's Tombaugh scholarship fund for post-doctoral students in astronomy. He died at home in Las Cruces, shortly before his 91st birthday.

In recent years, a host of objects have been discovered circling the sun in the "Kuiper Belt," a vast archipelago that extends billions of miles from a point between Neptune and Pluto. One, known as 2003 UB313 or Xena, is close to Pluto in size. Four others, all smaller than Pluto, have been discovered since 2002. For several years, the world's astronomers debated whether these bodies should also be recognized as planets. In a highly controversial decision, the International Astronomic Union voted in 2006 to redefine the world "planet" and to classify Pluto, Xena and the newly discovered smaller bodies as "dwarf planets." It remains to be seen whether this decision will be accepted by the international scientific community and the general public. Thousands of objects comparable to these "dwarf planets" may yet be discovered.

As the NASA space probe New Horizon explores the outer reaches of the solar system, it carries an ounce of Tombaugh's ashes. New Horizon is expected to fly by Pluto in July of 2015, bringing a trace of Clyde Tombaugh's mortal self to the new world he discovered, beyond the frontier he opened for all mankind.

This page last revised on Apr 01, 2015 18:45 EDT
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