Clyde W. Tombaugh

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Clyde William Tombaugh
Date & Place of Birth February 4, 1906 at Streator, Illinois, USA
Parents Muron and Adelle Tombaugh
Religion Christianity
Spouse Patricia (1912-2012)
Children Annette and Alden
Date & Place of Death January 17, 1997 at Las Cruces, New Mexico, USA
Place of Burial Las Cruces; 1 oz. ashes placed aboard New Horizons deep-space rocket probe
Education University of Kansas: Bachelor of Science (1936), Master of Science (1938)
Occupation Astronomy
Writings Discovery of Pluto

Clyde William Tombaugh (1906-fl. 1930-1997) is the astronomer and discoverer of the dwarf planet Pluto.[1]

Early life and self-education

Clyde Tombaugh was born 4 February 1906 in Streator, Illinois, the son of Muron and Adelle Tombaugh. His family moved to Burdett, Kansas in 1922. There a hailstorm destroyed his family's farm crops, so that the family could not afford to send him to college.

Undaunted, he built his own telescope in 1926. (Apparently he built it out of a kit from the Sears catalog.) The results did not satisfy him. So he self-educated in the science of optics, and built two more telescopes. He ground his own lenses and mirrors to build these. He drew the Solar System (as it was then known) from his observations, and sent his drawings to the Lowell Observatory in Arizona on or about 1928. The drawings impressed the directors, who invited him to join its staff.

Principal discovery

Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh's greatest discovery. The New Horizons controller team named the heart-shaped region in the southern hemisphere in his honor.
Shortly after he moved to Arizona, the now 24-year-old Tombaugh made the discovery for which the world will always remember him. He was searching for a "Planet X" beyond Neptune. Other astronomers had predicted "Planet X" from calculations based on an erroneous value for Neptune's mass and its orbital patterns. Tombaugh knew nothing of the error, but found an object anyway. This happened on 18 February 1930. His daughter Annette named the object Pluto.

Tombaugh knew even then that Pluto was not large enough to be the predicted Planet X. Eventually the Voyager 2 flyby returned data that allowed Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission controllers to determine that Neptune had more mass than astronomers had supposed. (Today the New Horizons flyby established the mass of Pluto, among other physical and orbital characteristics.)

Further education and military service

In 1932 Tombaugh had earned enough money to enroll at the University of Kansas. He kept working at Lowell during his summer vacations. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in 1936 and then returned to work at Lowell full-time. Still, in 1938 he earned his Master's degree, also from U. Kan.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Congress subsequently declared war on Japan. Two days later, the United States was fully involved in the Second World War. The United States Army called Tombaugh into its service. He lectured in navigation to United States Navy officers at Arizona State College from 1943-1945.

Further career

When the war ended, Lowell could not re-hire him. So he "re-upped" and joined the unit at the White Sands Missile Range at Las Cruces, New Mexico. There, among other achievements, he designed the IGOR (Intercept Ground Optical Recorder). This instrument (essentially a highly developed camera) remained in service at White Sands for 30 years before improvements became available.

Tombaugh left White Sands in 1955. He joined the faculty at New Mexico State College at Las Cruces. During that time he would have an eager young student named Walter T. Brown, Jr., who now runs the Center for Scientific Creation in Phoenix, Arizona. Brown says of his late mentor:

Going to his backyard to use his 9-inch handmade telescope was memorable. Professor Tombaugh was a warm, unpretentious man with the biggest smile you have ever seen. However, in class, he sometimes became irate [with] astronomers who made pronouncements but never touched a telescope.

In 1973, at the age of 67, he retired. Professor Emeritus Tombaugh traveled the country to raise money for the institution he had served the longest of all his employers.

He died at home in 1997, two and one-half weeks shy of his ninety-first birthday. Per his wishes, his survivors cremated him.

An immodest proposal?

In 1964, Clyde Tombaugh shared this story with his class on planetology (which Walter T. Brown attended): he proposed to NASA that they send him on a one-way mission to Mars. He did not propose to soft-land. He was prepared to crash-land, though it meant certain death, and report his impressions as he descended. Aghast NASA officials rejected his proposal. Brown guesses that NASA would never have wanted the bad publicity from sending a living human astronaut on a suicide mission. Tombaugh made no secret of his irritation with NASA for that refusal.[2]

But NASA, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and the Southwest Research Institute did, finally, oblige Tombaugh, though posthumously. They collected one U.S. Customary ounce of his ashes, sealed them in a canister, and installed this on the upper deck of the New Horizons probe. Alan Stern, the lead investigator, inscribed it thus:

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).[3]

Enduring legacy

The best legacy Tombaugh has left is, of course, his discovery of Pluto. To broaden that legacy, Alan Stern and his New Horizons team named the "Great Heart Shape" in the southern hemisphere of Pluto "Tombaugh Regio" (Latin, "Tombaugh's Region") in his honor.

In addition, the Western Amateur Astronomers Society established the Clyde Tombaugh Award for "Creative Innovation in Telescope Design." In 1992 the Riverside (California) Telescope Makers' Conference took over responsibility for the award. In 2007 they changed the criterion for the award to "Creative Innovation in Astronomy."


  1. Clyde Tombaugh Biography, Academy of Achievement. Last modified 1 April 2015. Retrieved 5 August 2015.
  2. Hurlbut TA, correspondence with Walter T. Brown, Jr., 10 August 2015.
  3. Mullen J, "Pluto discoverer's ashes are aboard New Horizons probe," Cable News Network. Published 14 July 2015. Retrieved 5 August 2015.

External links