Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
As scientists waited anxiously Tuesday for confirmation that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft got the closest look yet at Pluto, a colleague of the late Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered the dwarf planet, said no one would have been more pumped by the prospect than Tombaugh himself.
“He would be very excited about that,” said Herb Beebe, professor emeritus of astronomy at New Mexico State University. “He would have been delighted. He would be right on top of that. He would be following it as closely as possible.”
Tombaugh taught astronomy at NMSU from 1955 until his retirement in 1973 and was instrumental in starting NMSU’s astronomy department. But he was only 24 and had not yet earned a college degree when he discovered Pluto in 1930, while working as a researcher for the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.
Pluto was just a speck on photographs taken by Tombaugh in 1930. As New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto on Tuesday morning, buzzing the planet at the distance of a mere 7,700 miles, scientists and astronomy buffs braced themselves to see the best images ever. Confirmation of the close-up look, in the form of data sent back over 3 billion miles, was received by 7 p.m. MDT.
David Lee Summers, an observing associate at Kitt Peak National Observatory in southern Arizona, worked as a lab tech at NMSU from 1995 to 2001. Even though Tombaugh had retired from the university years before Summers started there, Tombaugh was still active in the astronomy department.
Summers said he knew Tombaugh well enough to know he would have been blown away by photos sent back by New Horizons even before it made its closest approach. A picture taken on Monday showed an icy, pockmarked world, peach-colored with a heart-shaped bright spot and darker areas around the equator.
“I think he would have been thrilled,” Summers said in a phone interview from Las Cruces, where he lives when not on duty at Kitt Peak. “He had this sort of sly smile. I can just see it, his eyes twinkling.”
Summers said he has been amazed by the images sent back before Tuesday.
“Just the contrast, this whole southern dark band on the planet. Just wondering what that is,” Summers said. “There are rings on the planet. Are those impact craters? I wonder how much going on there is interaction between (Pluto’s) moons and the planet.”
The New Horizons spacecraft, the size of a baby grand piano, made its closest pass at Pluto, at a speed of 31,000 mph, at 5:49 a.m. MDT. It will take 16 months, or until late 2016, for all of New Horizons’ data about Pluto, Pluto’s big moon, Charon, and four smaller moons to reach Earth.
New Horizons was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Jan. 19, 2006. At that time, Pluto was still designated a full-fledged planet. But seven months later, Pluto, which is only two-thirds the size of Earth’s moon, was downgraded to the status of dwarf planet.
Some of Tombaugh’s ashes are on board New Horizon, an appropriate tribute to the Illinois and Kansas farm boy who became the only American to discover a planet in our solar system.
Beebe said Tombaugh never lost his humble farm kid demeanor.
“He became famous for discovering Pluto when he was a very young man,” Beebe said in a phone interview from Las Cruces. “But he did not play the role of the unapproachable professor type. His role was that of the modest discoverer. He would be very forthcoming about it and tell the whole story.”
Tombaugh died in 1997, almost 10 years before Pluto’s status was changed to that of a dwarf planet.
“But he realized that someday Pluto would no longer be called a planet,” Beebe said. “It was 50 years before another Pluto-like object was discovered, but then they began to discover a lot of them, a couple of thousand of them. He thought discovering those other objects was great.”