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UU astronomer's ashes en route to Pluto

Late astronomer's widow reflects on planet's demotion.
By Donald E. Skinner
10.6.06

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Clyde Tombaugh

The work of UU astronomer Clyde Tombaugh is depicted in an 8-foot by 18-foot stained-glass window at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Las Cruces, N. Mex. (Lauri Shaw)

Even now, a month after it happened, Patsy Tombaugh can hardly go into the grocery store in Las Cruces, N.Mex. without someone coming up and telling her that Pluto got a raw deal.

It was Tombaugh’s husband, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930, making it the ninth planet in our solar system. His discovery rocked the astronomical world and forever after, until his death in 1997 at age 91, he was known as the man who discovered Pluto.

But last month, after years of wrangling, the International Astronomical Union voted Pluto out of the big planets club. It was demoted to the status of a “dwarf planet” because it didn’t meet all the criteria required of a planet.

In Las Cruces, where the Tombaughs have lived since 1955, and where they helped found the Unitarian Universalist Church of Las Cruces in that year, Patsy Tombaugh, 93, has come to terms with the decision, but she still doesn’t like it. And the dispute is not completely settled, she said.

“Some feel the vote was not done properly,” she said. “I understand that the publishers of school books have said they’re not going to remove Pluto until a further decision has been made.”

She said people at church and in Las Cruces “feel it’s rather a sad situation. Clyde was very much admired and loved here. And people seem to just love that little planet.”

She said her husband was sometimes frustrated. “He wanted people to pay attention to his other work,” she said. “He really loved the universe and had done other things worth mentioning, but people always connected him with Pluto.”

Tombaugh developed innovations in telescopic instruments and photographed two-thirds of the sky, discovering six star clusters, two comets, hundreds of asteroids, several dozen clusters of galaxies, one supercluster, and a rare exploding nova.

After his death friends and colleagues raised funds to commission an eight-by-eighteen-foot stained glass window for the church celebrating the universe and our solar system. It features depictions from Tombaugh’s childhood on a Kansas farm and his work. The window, on an east wall to catch the morning light, is part of the church’s art gallery.

Tombaugh may be gone from this planet but a small part of him is continuing to explore the heavens. On January 19, 2006, a NASA New Horizons spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, bound for Pluto. It will provide the closest look ever at that planet. Aboard the spacecraft is a tiny bit of Clyde Tombaugh’s cremated ashes. If all goes well, the spacecraft will fly past Pluto on July 14, 2015, and will eventually escape the solar system and enter interstellar space.

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