Pluto: Kansas farm boy spots new planet (1930)

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Kansas farm boy spots new planet

Clyde Tombaugh of Burdett First to Detect “Blotch of Light”

photographic plates that were used to discover Pluto

Flagstaff, ArizonaDiscovery of a new world, probably larger than the earth, brought to mathematical astronomy its second achievement of the kind.

The new and nameless planet, whose actual presence in trans-Neptunian space was first detected last February 18 by an astronomy-loving farmer boy from Kansas, was heralded through an announcement here yesterday by Dr V M Slipher of the Lowell Observatory.

A strange “blotch of light” on a photographic negative, registered by an extremely delicate instrument at the observatory, led to the discovery. The speck of light was noticed by Clyde Tombaugh, the young student of astronomy, formerly of Burdette, Kansas, and this led to detection of the heavenly body, bringing the known number of major planets in the solar system to nine.

The presence of another planet beyond Neptune was mathematically predicted years ago by the late Dr Percival Lowell, noted scientist and brother of A Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University.

The location of the new body on January 21 was fixed at three hours Greenwich time, seven seconds west from Delta Geminorum with Lowell’s predicted long side. It is approximately forty-five times farther from the earth [unreadable] is “at least no smaller than the earth.” Like Neptune, it cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Clyde Tombaugh - plutoAstronomically, the discovery is regarded as the greatest achievement since the location of Neptune, the eighth primary planet of the solar system, in 1846. The task now remains to determine its size, exact distance from the earth, its orbit, and other planetary characteristics.

The discovery was accomplished much in the same manner as the finding of Neptune in 1846. Tombaugh, a student scientist, came to the observatory a year ago, and has been working with the new Lawrence-Lowell telescope, exposing and examining the planets under the direction of senior members of the staff.

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“While I was peering the comparator at a plate, something new flickered before my eyes,” Tombaugh said. “At first I thought it was simply an illusion, but I looked at some more of the plates and finally realized that I had stumbled onto an important discovery. After an examination, the senior members of the staff were soon convinced that we were viewing the trans-Neptunian planet.”

Two years before his death, Dr Lowell, founder of the local observatory, announced calculations of the trans-Neptunian planet and, although he never had seen it, his computations indicated that such a body must exist.

While the newly-discovered planet as yet remains just “a blotch of light” on a photographic plate, astronomers at the observatory have announced that they will follow every action of the planet in order that more of its character may be learned.

Whether or not the new planet is inhabited is a matter for further calculations, but scientists agree that it may be as large as Jupiter, the greatest of the planets, which is 1,200 times the size of the earth.

Also see: Meet Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto (1930)

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