Today, the New Horizons spacecraft is flying by Pluto to send back close-up photos of it. Inside the spacecraft are the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the former farm boy who discovered the planet.
Tombaugh was born and raised on a farm in Streator, Ill., before moving to another farm in Burdett, Kan., at age 16. The young farmer was so interested in science that he built telescopes out of cream separators and other items to study Mars and Jupiter, L.A. Times reports. Tombaugh sent drawings he did of those planets to Lowell Observatory. This resulted in a job offer.
Founder of the observatory, Percival Lowell, had predicted the existence of a ninth planet, but it was Tombaugh who discovered it. The young astronomer’s job was to sit at a blink comparator that would photograph sections of the sky. Tombaugh had to examine each 14-by-17-inch plate to see which objects were fixed in the sky and which objects were moving, Popular Science reports. In February 1930, Tombaugh discovered Pluto.
“It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and I had been blinking these two plates for quite some time. And while I did this, the machine made a clicking noise that could be heard down across the hall by Dr. (C. O.) Lampland, a colleague of mine. Well, he told me later that he knew something was up because the clicking had stopped,” he said, according to L.A. Times. In the 45-minute silence, Tombaugh reexamined the plates. One of the objects had moved 1/8 inch. He told Lampland the news, and the two scientists hurried to tell V.M. Slipher, the Lowell Observatory director. A formal announcement of Pluto’s existence was made on March 13, 1930.
Now, 85 years later, the New Horizons spacecraft is giving us our first close-up look at Pluto, carrying with it the ashes of a former farm boy.