Friday, July 10, 2015

The cosmic legacy of space pioneer Clyde Tombaugh

It’s one of the first thing newcomers are told about when they move to Las Cruces, if they don’t already know: Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto, spent most of his life here.
Clyde was still here when I arrived in 1994 and I was fortunate to be able to interview him several times and spend some quality time with him and his wife, Patricia.
He generously let me get up close and personal with some of his homemade telescopes in his Mesilla Park backyard. He shared a lot of interesting stories about the scientific giants of his era, in fields ranging from rocketry to astronomy and nuclear physics. He was more than half a century my senior, but we had a surprising overlap in people we knew and admired.
And Patricia (which she preferred to “Patsy,” her kids report, “though she wasn’t uptight about it”) was equally generous in sharing her knowledge and talents in both the arts and sciences with the world and our community.
A lot of attention has been focused on Pluto in recent months, and there are more than a couple of sources who believe information from the New Horizons probe will return our favorite son’s discovery to full-fledged planetary status.
I’ve come to believe it doesn’t matter all that much if Pluto continues with its reclassified “dwarf planet” status.
Patricia liked to point out that its status as the smallest planet of the then-official nine somehow endeared it to us, and especially to our children, who took to the Tombaughs like a kind of Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus of the cosmos. During lecture tours and visits to area schools, kids were rapt and attentive as they heard about Clyde and his astronomical discoveries after Pluto (including numerous star clusters and clusters of galaxies, hundreds of asteroids, two comets, one nova, and the full extent of the Great Perseus-Andromeda Stratum of Extra-Galactic Nebulae).
It’s apt that Tombaugh Elementary School is among one of the regional institutions named for Clyde (others include the Tombaugh IMAX Dome Theatre and Planetarium at the New Mexico Space History Museum, the Tombaugh Observatory at NMSU, and the Tombaugh Art Gallery at Unitarian Universalist Church, where the Tombaughs were founding members).
If you’re a newcomer, you may not know the story of Clyde, a bright and persistent boy who grew up on farms in small communities in Illinois and Kansas, built his own telescopes and sent sketches of his observations to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. They were so impressed that they hired Clyde, who had not yet begun college studies, to conduct planet-search photography in 1929. In 1930, with painstaking comparisons of “blinking” photographic plates, he discovered Pluto.
It was an amazing feat in that pre-computer era, rendered even more amazing by the fact that it would be more than 75 years later, in a new millennium of high-tech advances, before some astronomers figured they had enough data about what we now refer to as Kuiper Belt Objects to reclassify Clyde’s discovery. On Aug. 24, 2006, at a still-controversial meeting of the International Astronomical Union, a vote involving 424 astronomers defined the term “planet” for the first time, a definition that excluded Pluto and added it as a member of the new “dwarf planet” category.
That was nearly a decade after Clyde’s passing, and I wonder if they would have had the nerve to try it if he’d still been alive. There were mutterings earlier, but when last I talked to Clyde, he told me that Pluto behaved as a planet, and a unique and unusual planet, at that.
Stay tuned for more on that. At this writing, Pluto and its five moons are showing some characteristics that could knock our cosmic socks off, in layperson Pluto fan terms. Astronomers are now talking about the ways Pluto and its biggest moon Charon are functioning as a “double planet system” and there are reportedly some intriguing and surprising aspects involving Pluto’s other moons, which include  Kerberos, Styx, Nix and Hydra. There are also recent discoveries of mysterious dark spots — at this writing, a big polar one on Charon and a group of dark circles on Pluto.
What we do know is that Clyde had an extraordinary life and career, and the discovery of Pluto, and a resulting scholarship that allowed him to attend college, were just the beginning. Check out his accomplishments at the exhibit continuing this month at the Branigan Cultural Center.
And join his friends, fans and family for the big Plutopalooza street party downtown on July 25 and follow-up lectures and reports that will continue at annual Tombaugh Days celebrations each February at the Las Cruces Museum of Nature & Science.
Little Pluto, and the achievements of the man who discovered it, are wonders whose depths we have only begun to probe and appreciate.
S. Derrickson Moore may be reached at dmoore, @DerricksonMoore on Twitter and Tout, or call 575-541-5450.

•1906: Feb. 4: Clyde William Tombaugh born on a farm near Streator, Ill.
•1922: Family moved to Kansas farm
•1925: Graduated from Burdett High School, Burdett, Kan.
•1926: Constructed first telescope
•1927-28: Constructed 9-inch telescope
•1929: After sending planetary sketches to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., hired by observatory director V. M. Slipher to conduct planet-search photography
•1930: Feb. 18: Discovered ninth planet Pluto by comparing “blinking” photographic plates
•1930: March 13: Official announcement of the discovery
•1931: Awarded the Jackson-Gwilt Medal and Gift by the Royal Astronomical Society in recognition of his discovery. Also received the Edwin Emory Slosson Scholarship to University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kan.
•1932: Entered University of Kansas as a freshman; continued planet search work at Lowell Observatory in the summers while pursuing his university education
•1934: Married Patricia (Patsy) Edson (two children: Annette, born 1940 and Alden, born 1945)
•1936: B.A., University of Kansas
•1939: M.A., University of Kansas. Thesis: “Study of the Observational Capabilities of the University’s 27-inch Newtonian Reflector with a Program to Restore the Telescope to Pristine Condition”
•1943-45: Taught at Arizona State Teachers College (now Northern Arizona University) in Flagstaff, Ariz. serving first as physics instructor for the college and later as navigation instructor for the Navy V-12 program
•1945: End of the Trans-Saturnian Planet Search at Lowell Observatory. In addition to identifying the ninth planet Pluto, during the course of the planet search Tombaugh discovered numerous star clusters and clusters of galaxies, hundreds of asteroids, two comets, one nova and showed the full extent of the Great Perseus-Andromeda Stratum of Extra-Galactic Nebulae.
•1945-46: Visiting Assistant Professor in Astronomy at University of California at Los Angeles
•1946: Moved to Las Cruces, N.M.
•1946-50: As Chief of Optical Measurements Section at White Sands Proving Ground, Tombaugh was responsible for the tracking telescopes used to photograph rockets and missiles during test flights.
•1950-55: Optical physicist in charge of optical and photographic research in the Systems Engineering Branch at White Sands Proving Ground
•1951: Founded Las Cruces Astronomical Society with Jed Durrenberger, Walter Haas, and others, and served as its first president
•1952: Returned to Lowell Observatory for a few months to conduct preliminary work on a proposed survey of proper motion stars
•1953-55: Initiated and led Near Earth Satellite Search, funded by the Army Office of Ordnance Research and conducted at Lowell Observatory. The search was focused on identifying any small natural satellites of the Earth as a preparatory step to beginning space exploration.
•1955: Administration of the satellite search project transferred from White Sands Proving Ground to the Physical Science Laboratory at New Mexico State University.
•1955: Clyde and Patsy Tombaugh were among the founding members of the Las Cruces Unitarian Fellowship (now Unitarian Universalist Church of Las Cruces).
•1956-58: Satellite search project conducted in Quito, Ecuador; search was extended beyond the original end date of 1957 in order to photograph the first man-made satellite Sputnik I.
•1958-73: Initiated and led photographic Planetary Patrol of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn
•1959: Near Earth Satellite Search final report issued; no satellites had been found. This negative result gave assurance that rockets could be sent into space without colliding with natural debris.
•1959-68: Transferred from NMSU Physical Science Laboratory to new NMSU Research Center as associate research professor. In addition to the planetary patrol work, Tombaugh carried out projects studying the geology of Mars and conducted a site evaluation study for a proposed Air Force observatory near Cloudcroft, N.M.
•1960: Received honorary doctorate from Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Ariz.
•1961-70: Taught astronomy part time in the Department of Earth Sciences (renamed Department of Earth Sciences and Astronomy in 1965), continued research work in NMSU Research Center half-time
•1968: Worked to establish Astronomy graduate program in at NMSU moved forward with the submission of a “Request for Preliminary Accreditation for a Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Astronomy”
•1970, July 1: Ph.D. granting Department of Astronomy established at New Mexico State University
•1972: Dedication of the Clyde W. Tombaugh Observatory on the New Mexico State University campus
•1973: Retired from NMSU as Emeritus Professor of Astronomy
•1980: “Out of the Darkness, The Planet Pluto,” an autobiographical account of the discovery, published with co-author Patrick Moore. Numerous events held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of Pluto, including the meeting “Pluto - The Ninth Planet’s Golden Year,” sponsored by the NMSU Department of Astronomy.
•1986: Clyde Tombaugh Scholars Fund in support of postdoctoral fellowship at NMSU established
•1987-88: Conducted national speaking tour to raise funds for Tombaugh Scholars Fund
•1997, Jan. 17: Died at his home in Mesilla Park
•2006, Jan. 19: New Horizons was launched on an Atlas V rocket, from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, directly into an Earth-and-solar-escape trajectory with Clyde’s ashes on board, leaving Earth at the fastest launch speed ever recorded for a human-made object. It flew by Jupiter on Feb, 28, 2007, and Saturn’s orbit on June 8, 2008. Slated to arrive at Pluto on July 14, 2015 and then continue into the Kuiper belt.
•Aug. 24, 2006: At a still-controversial meeting of the International Astronomical Union, a vote involving 424 astronomers defined the term “planet” for the first time, a definition which excluded Pluto and added it as a member of the new “dwarf planet” category.
•March 2, 2010: On “The Pluto Files” NOVA show on PBS, Neil deGrasse Tyson profiled Clyde and interviewed members of the Tombaugh family and famous supporters of Pluto’s planetary status, including Jon Stewart and Diane Sawyer.
•Jan. 12, 2012: Patricia Edson Tombaugh, Clyde’s wife, lecture partner and community leader, died in Las Cruces at age 99.
•Feb. 2, 2013: Tombaugh Day established at Las Cruces Museum of Nature & Science. A celebration is planned annually near Clyde’s Feb. 4 birthday.
•July 14, 2015: New Horizons probe, launched on Jan. 19, 2006, with Clyde’s ashes on board, slated to make its closest approach to Pluto. In 2010, a special festival, Plutopalooza, was proposed to celebrate the event in June and July, 2015 in Las Cruces. Clyde’s birthplace, Steater, Ill., also had a 2015 Plutopalooza event.

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