This has been an exciting week as the New Horizons Probe has flown by Pluto. The views of this little world and its moon Charon have really made them come alive as places on the distant edge of our solar system. Although I’m not directly involved with the Pluto teams, I know several people who are, including one person on the imaging team who brought us the now famous image of the “heart” on Pluto and a person who was responsible for helping the craft navigate Pluto’s crowded system of five moons. However, perhaps the person connected with Pluto, I was most honored to know was Clyde Tombaugh, the man who made the initial discovery.
I can’t say I knew Clyde well. He had retired by the time I arrived at New Mexico State University in 1995. Still he regularly attended astronomy department colloquia and maintained an interest in the department’s activities—not surprising, since he founded the NMSU astronomy department. I attended Clyde’s 90th birthday party, hosted by the department and learned a lot about him from the department chair’s address. Sadly, I attended his funeral less than a year later. This week, as New Horizons flew by Pluto, the Albuquerque Journal interviewed me about my recollections of Clyde.
I maintained two of his telescopes—a small solar telescope used for department events and a larger telescope which was in Ecuador in the 1950s and used to search for small, undiscovered bodies orbiting the Earth. The negative result for that study had important ramifications for the next decade’s space program. Two years after Clyde passed away, I was asked to portray him at Las Cruces city events celebrating the 150th anniversary. This video shows a public service announcement which ran on KRWG TV where I portrayed Clyde:
As it turns out, discovering Pluto was only the beginning of Clyde’s career. Afterwards, he went to college and graduate school. That’s right, Clyde only had a high school diploma when he discovered Pluto! He discovered several asteroids. He was one of the first people to notice that the universe had a large scale structure. As I mentioned earlier, he looked for, but didn’t find, objects besides the moon orbiting the Earth, and he founded the astronomy department at New Mexico State University. He also founded the Unitarian Church in Las Cruces. Now, he’s also the first man whose ashes are being carried outside the solar system on the New Horizons probe.
My own explorations of the solar system have been much more humble. I’ve helped look at asteroids that would pass near the Earth and I’ve also helped with programs looking for distant Kuiper Belt objects beyond the orbit of Pluto. Nevertheless, I find the whole process of exploring the solar system exciting and would jump at the chance to do so. I imagined such a voyage in my novel The Solar Sea. You can learn more about the novel, watch a book trailer, read a sample chapter, and see some cool illustrations based on the novel at TheSolarSea.com