Clyde W. Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto.
Clyde W. Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto.
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Pluto Discovered by Clyde W. Tombaugh

In the 1840s, using Newtonian mechanics, Urbain Le Verrier predicted the position of the then-undiscovered planet Neptune after analysing perturbations in the orbit of Uranus. Subsequent observations of Neptune in the late 19th century caused astronomers to speculate that Uranus' orbit was being disturbed by another planet in addition to Neptune. In 1906, Percival Lowell, a wealthy Bostonian who had founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1894, started an extensive project in search of a possible ninth planet, which he termed "Planet X". By 1909, Lowell and William H. Pickering had suggested several possible celestial coordinates for such a planet. Lowell and his observatory conducted his search until his death in 1916, but to no avail. Unbeknownst to Lowell, on March 19, 1915, his observatory had captured two faint images of Pluto, but did not recognise them for what they were.

Due to a ten-year legal battle with Constance Lowell, Percival's widow, who attempted to wrest the observatory's million-dollar portion of his legacy for herself, the search for Planet X did not resume until 1929, when its director, Vesto Melvin Slipher, summarily handed the job of locating Planet X to Clyde Tombaugh, a 23-year-old Kansas man who had just arrived at the Lowell Observatory after Slipher had been impressed by a sample of his astronomical drawings.

Tombaugh's task was to systematically image the night sky in pairs of photographs taken two weeks apart, then examine each pair and determine whether any objects had shifted position. Using a machine called a blink comparator, he rapidly shifted back and forth between views of each of the plates, to create the illusion of movement of any objects that had changed position or appearance between photographs. On February 18, 1930, after nearly a year of searching, Tombaugh discovered a possible moving object on photographic plates taken on January 23 and January 29 of that year. A lesser-quality photograph taken on January 21 helped confirm the movement. After the observatory obtained further confirmatory photographs, news of the discovery was telegraphed to the Harvard College Observatory on March 13, 1930.