Sometimes it was to gaze upon a planet, and sometimes it was to see a brilliant cluster of stars. If Annette and Alden Tombaugh weren’t asleep by the time their father came home from work, chances are he’d have them peer through one of the telescopes in the backyard of their Las Cruces, New Mexico home. “You’ve got to look at this!” he’d exclaim.
Their father, Clyde Tombaugh, was not only devoted to astronomy. He was the man who discovered Pluto.
On 14 July, more than 85 years after Professor Tombaugh’s discovery, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will become the first mission to fly past Pluto. Tombaugh died in 1997, but during the flyby Alden and Annette will be special guests at mission headquarters — the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland — honouring their father’s scientific legacy.
While in his early twenties, Clyde Tombaugh used one of his homemade telescopes to make such detailed drawings of Mars and Jupiter, that Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, asked him to join the staff, even though he did not yet have a college degree. In addition to discovering Pluto while at Lowell Observatory, Tombaugh also found hundreds of asteroids and variable stars — as well as two comets — during the course of his career.
Alden Tombaugh and his sister did not directly follow in their father’s footsteps. Alden became a banker, while his sister, Annette Tombaugh Sitze, became an elementary school teacher. But both inherited their father’s interest in the natural world, Alden Tombaugh notes. “It’s this curiosity that’s part of everyone in the family.”
On 14 July, Alden and Annette will each have families in tow as they wait in nervous anticipation for New Horizons to radio home, a sign that the flyby was successful. The spacecraft, which will travel deeper into the Kuiper belt reservoir of frozen bodies after flying past Pluto, carries some of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes.
Alden Tombaugh reflects, “My Dad always said if he ever had the chance, he’d love to visit the planets in the Solar System and around other stars.” Now part of that wish has come true.