A Day in Astronomy: Discovery of Pluto

Image (Credit): The dwarf planet Pluto. (NASA)

On this day in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto. The 23-year old astronomer was working for the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona at the time of his discovery.

Pluto, recognized as the ninth planet in our solar system, was demoted to a dwarf planet in 2006 since it was one of many such objects in the Kuiper Belt and did not meet the definition of a planet.

When NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft visited Pluto in 2015, it was carrying some of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes. The canister with the ashes had the following inscription:

Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system’s “third zone.” Adelle and Muron’s boy, Patricia’s husband, Annette and Alden’s father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend: Clyde W. Tombaugh (1906-1997).

You can learn a number of interesting facts about Pluto here.

A Day in Astronomy: The Leviathan of Parsonstown

Image (Credit): The Leviathan of Parsonstown, or Rosse six-foot telescope. (Planetary Society)

On this day in 1845, a 72-inch reflecting telescope built by William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, came into use on his estate in Ireland. The telescope remained the largest in the world until 1917, when it was eclipsed by the Hooker reflecting telescope in California.

Known as both the Leviathan of Parsonstown and Rosse six-foot telescope, it was used William Parson to observe star clusters and nebulae. For example, it was used to view a spiral nebula that we know today as the spiral galaxy Messier 51, or The Whirlpool Galaxy, which is about 31 million light years from Earth (see below). You can see The Whirlpool Galaxy today with a pair of binoculars.

Go here for more information on the Earl and his telescope.

Image (Credit): Spiral galaxy Messier 51, also called The Whirlpool Galaxy. (NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

A Day in Astronomy: Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

Image (Credit): Space Shuttle Columbia Memorial. (NASA)

On this day in 2003, the STS-107 mission aboard NASA’s oldest space shuttle Columbia came to a horrible end when the shuttle disintegrated upon reentry. That day we lost crew members David M. Brown, Rick D. Husband, Laurel B. Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, William C. “Willie” McCool, and Ilan Ramon. It was just 17 years after losing the crew on the space shuttle Challenger.

At the memorial service for the astronauts, President George W. Bush stated:

This cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose; it is a desire written in the human heart. We are that part of creation which seeks to understand all creation. We find the best among us, send them forth into unmapped darkness, and pray they will return. They go in peace for all mankind, and all mankind is in their debt. Yet, some explorers do not return. And the loss settles unfairly on a few.

You can learn more about the STS-107 mission here.

Image (Credit): STS-107 crew members David M. Brown, left, Rick D. Husband, Laurel B. Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, William C. “Willie” McCool, and Ilan Ramon. (NASA)

A Day in Astronomy: Birth of Astronaut Buzz Aldrin

Image (Credit): Buzz Aldrin. (CNN)

On this day in 1930, Edwin Eugene (Buzz) Aldrin Jr. came into the world. Since that day, he has been busy with adventures in the sky (US Air Force fighter pilot), in orbit (Gemini 12), and on the Moon (Apollo 11). He will always be remembered as part of the first pair of humans (Neil Armstrong being the other half) to step on the lunar surface.

Here are a few other interesting facts about Mr. Aldrin:

  • “Buzz” came from his sister mispronouncing “brother” as “buzzer”;
  • his father wanted him to go to the Naval Academy, but Buzz’s seasickness steered hims towards West Point;
  • he flew 66 combat missions in Korea;
  • the was the first astronaut with a doctoral degree;
  • the first person to hold a religious ceremony on the Moon;
  • following the Apollo 11 mission, Buzz, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins toured Michael Collins toured 22 countries over 38 days;
  • he was the oldest person to reach the South Pole at age 86;
  • he has written numerous books, including his autobiography Magnificent Desolation.
Credit: Bloomsbury Publishing

A Day in Astronomy: The Start of the Pluto Mission

Image (Credit): Artist’s rendering of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

On this day in 2006, NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The objective of the mission was to explore Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. In 2015, the spacecraft spent six months studying Pluto and its moons. New Horizons is now on an extended mission exploring other parts of the Kuiper Belt.

Here is last year’s mission summary from NASA:

New Horizons flew past Pluto in 2015 and the Kuiper belt object (KBO) Arrokoth in 2019. In its second extended mission, New Horizons will continue to explore the distant solar system out to 63 astronomical units (AU) from Earth. The New Horizons spacecraft can potentially conduct multi-disciplinary observations of relevance to the solar system and NASA’s Heliophysics and Astrophysics Divisions. Additional details regarding New Horizons’ science plan will be provided at a later date.

Image (Credit): Pluto as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft (with enhanced color). (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)