Saving Our Science Heritage

In recent months we’ve seen the historic flyby of Pluto by the New Horizons probe, a remarkable achievement in space exploration that has produced some amazing imagery and scientific information. A little known fact: the probe carried with it a small portion of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who first discovered the planet (Okay… dwarf planet–happy?)

tombaughTombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930 while searching for a trans-Neptunian planet (called Planet X Back then) predicted by Percival Lowell . At the time, Tombaugh was working at the Lowell Observatory, in Arizona. He made his  discovery through painstaking work comparing images from parts of the sky to look for movement in the faint pinpricks of light using a blink comparator.

Although the planet’s status has changed more recently, the discovery is still a historic one because it was the first detection of an object in what has now become known as the Kuiper belt (a disk of objects similar to the asteroid belt, but much bigger and extending out from the orbit of Neptune.).

plutoIn the intervening years Tombaugh has had several items named in honor of his achievement including an asteroid (discovered by Tombaugh), the Tombaugh Cliffs in Antarctica, the Matian crater Tombaugh, and most recently Tombaugh Regio, the heart-shaped bright surface feature on Pluto itself.

Which is why I was incredibly surprised to see in the last couple of weeks that Lowell Observatory is trying to raise funds through kickstarter in order to pay for restoration of this historic scientific site! The amount they are looking for is less than $25,000, a trifling amount in a world where so much is wasted each year.

Last year I took part in the fundraiser by the Smithsonian to “Reboot The Suit“–the restoration of Neil Armstrong’s historic space suit from the first landing on the moon. It makes me wonder how many parts of our scientific heritage are being lost due to the lack of even small amounts of funding and I’m reminded of a quote from one of my favorite authors:

“A generation which ignores history has no past and no future.”
Robert Heinlein.

It looks like the Lowell Observatory is well on it’s way to making it’s goals and I’m proud to say I made a small contribution. It’s about time our elected leaders start supporting these endeavors before they’re gone for all time.



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