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Famous Astronomers: The Man Who Discovered Pluto

By Yona Williams    1/6/08

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Have you ever wondered who discovered Pluto? And – what type of connection does the discoverer of helium have to the world of astronomy? These questions are answered in this article, which explores the contributions of Clyde Tombaugh (1906 –1997) and Sir Joseph Lockyer (1836 – 1920).

Clyde Tombaugh (1906 –1997)

When it comes to the discovery of Pluto that took place in 1930, this honor goes to the American astronomer hailing from LaSalle County, Illinois. Upon moving to Kansas, Tombaugh constructed his first telescope and delivered sketches of his observations of Jupiter and Mars to the Lowell Observatory. The outcome? A job offer that led to Tombaugh working at the Lowell Observatory from 1929 to 1945.

After he discovered the dwarf planet of Pluto, he received astronomy degrees after attending the University of Kansas and Northern Arizona University. From 1955 until he entered retirement in 1973 – Tombaugh was a professor at New Mexico State University – teaching none other than astronomy.

Tombaugh also has space objects named after him, such as the asteroid 1604 Tombaugh that was discovered in 1931. Over time, he became responsible for finding 14 asteroids – the first coming in 1929 that was later named 2839 Annette. While he searched for Pluto, he would go on to name celestial objects after his spouse, children, and grandchildren. In 1931, his efforts would earn him the Royal Astronomical Society award called the Jackson-Gwilt Medal.

Another significant detail regarding the life of Tombaugh was his interest in UFOs, as he was considered one of the leaders in supporting their existence. In 1949, he claimed to have spotted a collection of UFO close to Las Cruces, New Mexico. He described the experience as coming in contact with six to eight rectangular lights and is quoted as saying, "I doubt that the phenomenon was any terrestrial reflection, because... nothing of the kind has ever appeared before or since... I was so unprepared for such a strange sight that I was really petrified with astonishment."

After his passing in 1997, the ashes of Tombaugh were carried into space on the New Horizons spacecraft that made a journey towards Pluto.

Sir Joseph Lockyer (1836 – 1920)

This British scientist and astronomer (alongside French scientist, Pierre Janssen) are known for discovering the gas called helium. In his early years, Lockyer gained the reputation as a swift amateur astronomer who possessed a deep interest in the sun. This would eventually come in handy when he accepted the position of director of the solar physics observatory located in Kensington, London. Over the course of his life, he also became the founding editor of the scientific journal titled 'Nature' in 1869. In 1912, he constructed the observatory that is now known as Lockyer Observatory and Planetarium as a private endeavor after the South Kensington Observatory was shut down.

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