Clyde Tombaugh was born this day, the fourth of February 1906 in Streator, Illinois and in 1930 discovered the then planet and now dwarf planet Pluto. And a spacecraft, New Horizons, is hurtling toward Pluto and if all goes well and it should, will make its closest approach something like the fourteenth of July 2015; and when I say hurtling I mean it. New Horizons was launched from Cape Canaveral on 01-19-06 atop an Atlas V 551 and holds the record for the fastest object ever launched from earth.
New Horizons was propelled into an earth / solar escape trajectory – a velocity of 16.2 km/sec or 36,737 mph – it made it to the orbit of the moon in 9 hours! Check out launch details here. And you heard me right – a solar escape velocity! It is headed out of the solar system after a Pluto mission. Blasting stuff out of the solar system. Feel. The. Power.
So yes, to answer the obvious question, we are on the way to planet Pluto and will be like 10,000 km away at its closest approach, close enough that if a satellite was that height above earth it could image individual buildings. This is a big deal. Because we have absolutely no idea, at all, what we’ll see. No idea. Pluto is so blasted far away, it really isn’t even in the solar system if you think about it. It is actually just a biggish member of a bunch of space junk we call the Kuiper belt.
Tombaugh was born in Streator, Illinois. After his family moved to Burdett, Kansas in 1922, Tombaugh’s plans for attending college were frustrated when a hailstorm ruined his family’s farm crops. Starting in 1926, he built several telescopes with lenses and mirrors by himself. He sent drawings of Jupiter and Mars to the Lowell Observatory, which offered him a job. Tombaugh worked there from 1929 to 1945.
Following his discovery of Pluto, Tombaugh earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in astronomy from the University of Kansas in 1936 and 1938. During World War II he taught naval personnel navigation at Northern Arizona University. He worked at White Sands Missile Range in the early 1950s, and taught astronomy at New Mexico State University from 1955 until his retirement in 1973.
The asteroid1604 Tombaugh, discovered in 1931, is named after him. He discovered hundreds of asteroids, beginning with 2839 Annette in 1929, mostly as a by-product of his search for Pluto and his searches for other celestial objects. Tombaugh named some of them after his wife, children and grandchildren. The Royal Astronomical Society awarded him the Jackson-Gwilt Medal in 1931.
In August 1992, JPL scientist Robert Staehle called Tombaugh, requesting permission to visit his planet. “I told him he was welcome to it,” Tombaugh later remembered, “though he’s got to go one long, cold trip.” The call eventually led to the launch of the New Horizons space probe.
So really, I just wanted to get a jolly birthday wish of in Clyde Tombaugh’s memory and hint at the awesomeness of this Pluto mission. More on that later!
OK. Stop the presses. Just check out that trajectory. I mean compare it to the elaborate gravitational assists of missions like Rosetta – it’s like comparing a ballerina and a complex beautiful dance to to a direct knock-out punch from the fist of a prize fighter – in this case the mighty Atlas V. Point the thing at Pluto and FIRE!! Freaking awesome!!!