Nation & World

Arizona home of Pluto research dedicates year to icy world, Kansas discoverer

Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered the planet Pluto, is shown at work in his study at the Lowell Observatory on Observatory Hill in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 1931. (AP Photo)
Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered the planet Pluto, is shown at work in his study at the Lowell Observatory on Observatory Hill in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 1931. (AP Photo) ASSOCIATED PRESS

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A sushi restaurant in downtown Flagstaff has added a Pluto roll to its menu.

A yearlong exhibit celebrates the work of the amateur Kansas astronomer who discovered the now-dwarf planet in 1930.

And a walking tour leads people to the movie theater and restaurant the astronomer visited the night of his big find.

Pluto has taken on new prominence in Flagstaff, where it was spotted by Clyde Tombaugh from Lowell Observatory and where residents have since been fascinated with the icy world. The worldwide attention that followed the discovery meant Flagstaff would be known as more than a railroad, cattle ranching and timber community on the way to the Grand Canyon.

The “Year of Pluto” exhibit at the observatory comes as NASA’s New Horizon’s spacecraft completes a nine-year journey to the unexplored world in July. New images will be beamed to Earth that will be shown and studied at the observatory that overlooks downtown Flagstaff.

“The whole city of Flagstaff has a scientific bent,” said local artist Paula Rice, who plans to make a figurative ceramic piece of Pluto based on the new images. “And we live at 7,000 feet in altitude, so our ocean is the night sky. We naturally look up.”

Tombaugh’s fascination with astronomy landed him at Lowell Observatory in the 1920s, shoveling snow from a telescope dome and feeding coal into stoves. The job had the added benefit of photographing the night sky in search of a mysterious Planet X that the observatory’s founder, Percival Lowell, had plotted before he died in 1916.

“I just had the urge to see on the other side of the mountain,” Clyde Tombaugh told The Eagle in 1991. He died in 1997.

Because of his father's love of the night sky, Tombaugh developed an affinity for astronomy. And when the family's tiny store-bought telescope proved inadequate, a teenage Tombaugh began grinding mirrors and constructing his own. That earned him the nickname “Comet Clyde” around his hometown of Burdett.

Born in 1906 on an Illinois farm, Tombaugh moved with his family to rural Pawnee County as a teenager. Once in Kansas, he was fascinated by the night sky and made notes and drawings of his findings — sending some to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

Before he received formal training, Tombaugh was hired as a junior astronomer at the observatory, where he often hunched over the observatory's telescope in freezing temperatures and exposed film until the early morning hours.

His discovery method was methodical: Examining hundreds of photos taken of the same portion of the sky crowded with about 300,000 stars, Tombaugh explained later to reporters, he looked for tiny dots that differed slightly on any two photos.

The task was “mind-numbingly boring” as Lowell historian Kevin Schindler describes it.

On Feb. 18, 1930, the then-24-year-old Tombaugh spotted a small shift in the position of an object in the plates. That shift showed what would become known as Pluto.

Once he found Pluto, everything in his life changed.

“The world went wild,” he said in 1990. “I was interviewed by everyone.”

After Pluto's discovery, Tombaugh earned a full scholarship at the University of Kansas, where he received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Tombaugh later founded the research astronomy department at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, regarded as one of the nation's best.

Since Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto, other discoveries linked to Flagstaff and Lowell astronomers include Pluto’s atmosphere and three of the five moons found so far around Pluto.

Some 80,000 people each year visit Lowell Observatory, where a new exhibit showcases Tombaugh’s log books, letters, Lowell’s original calculations, one of the original discovery plates and a telegram sent on behalf of a young English girl who suggested the name Pluto in honor of the Roman god of the underworld.

The symbol for Pluto, PL, also is a tribute to Lowell.

While his discovery of Pluto cast Flagstaff into the spotlight, so did its reclassification to dwarf planet in 2006.

The question isn’t well settled among the observatory staff or Flagstaff residents who “feel very defensive about Pluto and want to protect it,” curator Samantha Thompson said. The exhibit that opened in March begins by asking “Is Pluto a planet?” and leaves the answer up to visitors.

“I think we got more publicity having Pluto’s status demoted than we got from the discovery of Pluto,” said Flagstaff Mayor Jerry Nabours.

Contributing: Beccy Tanner of The Eagle

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