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Science & Environment

Pluto Discoverer's Hometown Throws Big Bash For (Non-Dwarf!) Planet

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

As data starts to come in from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, the one that passed by Pluto yesterday, residents of one small town in Illinois are especially interested. The late astronomer Clyde Tombaugh is credited with discovering Pluto back in 1930. And the town where he was born is proud to see its native son back in the news. From member station WNIJ, Jenna Dooley reports.

JENNA DOOLEY, BYLINE: Here in Streator, Ill., there are T-shirts that read Clyde Pride, a farmers market telling residents to discover new vegetables and oh, yes, a little polka music matching the festive tone over the past few weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOOLEY: That's just a taste of the celebrating going on in Streator. Over the years, lots of astronomers and other scientists have visited Streator, a town about 90 miles southwest of Chicago. Pluto has always been a big deal here. Rural Streator was once a young astronomer's dream, with dark and open skies. Clyde Tombaugh died in 1997. A decade earlier, he described how he once scavenged old farm equipment to construct his first telescopes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLYDE TOMBAUGH: For example, this is the base of a cream separator that we use to separate the cream from the milk. And this polar axis here is a - off my dad's old 1910 Buick and some of the parts are off straw spreaders and so on.

RON TOMBAUGH: You know, Midwestern values and having to figure things out on your own and not having all the resources handed to you, you know, have to make do with what you got.

DOOLEY: That's Ron Tombaugh, a cousin in Clyde Tombaugh's extended family still living near Streator. His wife, Sandy, says he didn't use the family connection when they were dating.

S. TOMBAUGH: Somebody at my office said, who are you dating, Tombaugh from Streator? I'm from Streator, she said. I think one of his relatives discovered a planet.

DOOLEY: So about that plant thing. In 2006, a group of scientists reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet. Lee Green is a volunteer with NASA's Solar System Ambassadors Program and is still getting over that.

LEE GREEN: The fact that Pluto was the only planet that was discovered by an American gives us a special pride in it.

DOOLEY: Clyde Tombaugh is a legend among astronomers, and Brittany Florea remembers learning about him when she was in school in Streator.

BRITTANY FLOREA: It's unique being from a town where this is such a big deal, and not a lot of people know about what we have here, so it's kind of nice to be around people who share the same interest.

DOOLEY: But the planet debate - for her, it's an open-and-shut case.

FLOREA: It's always a planet in Streator.

DOOLEY: And it's always a celebration when Pluto and Streator get together. For NPR News, I'm Jenna Dooley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.