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Lost in Space - January 30, 2015

Front page article on the discovery of Pluto from the New York Times, March 14, 1930. (Image Courtesy of Kansas Historical Society /

Q: It was in 1926 that Clyde Tombaugh decided to build his own telescope. He had been using a store-bought telescope on the family farm in Burdett, Kan., but became dissatisfied with it. So, he built his own. Just four years later, while using a more advanced star gazer, he discovered the planet Pluto. Tombaugh's discovery earned him worldwide recognition and a college scholarship! Can you name the school?

A: The University of Kansas (where Tombaugh earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees!)

Tiny Pluto is back in the headlines this year because the NASA spacecraft New Horizons is expected to fly by the so-called “dwarf planet” this summer (July 14, 2015). It will be the first time a NASA spacecraft has come this close to the mysterious, icy orb. Smaller than the Earth’s moon, Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh. At the time, Tombaugh was working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz.  
Just four years earlier, Tombaugh was living on his family’s farm in Burdett, Kan., where he studied the night sky using telescopes he built by hand. In one case, in 1928, he completed construction of a very accurate, 23-centimeter reflector. The mount for this telescope was built from part of the crankshaft from a 1910 Buick and discarded parts from a cream separator. He was certainly the MacGyver of his day!

Tombaugh’s discovery earned him worldwide fame and a scholarship to the University of Kansas, where he completed both his undergrad and graduate degrees. Yes, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto before he went to college. He died in 1997. About an ounce of Tombaugh’s cremated ashes are carried on board the New Horizons spacecraft. It’s a tribute to the man who, at the age of 24, found lonely Pluto floating in space… nearly 5 billion miles from Earth.

Fun Factoid: New Horizons was launched in January 2006, and by the time it flies by Pluto, the spacecraft will have traveled for 9.5 years.


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