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My radio piece about Pluto aired this morning on Kansas Public Radio. Here it is: Man Meets Planet.

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And here’s the text version:

MAN MEETS PLANET                       

Kansans have always loved the sky above us. Brewster Higley, for example, sitting on the banks of Beaver Creek in Smith County in about 1873, wrote a poem which later became our state song, “Home on the Range.” It includes this stanza:

How often at night, when the heavens are bright, With the light of the glittering stars

Have I stood here amazed, and asked as I gazed, If their glory exceeds this of ours.

When I gaze into that glitter of stars, I look for Pluto. I can’t see it, of course, but I know it’s there. Pluto has a place in the hearts of Kansans because it was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh of Burdett.

Picture this: It’s 1926, a young man, 20 years-old, puts his eye behind a telescope, that he built himself, and looks between the stars over western Kansas.

At a time when Kansas farmers still relied on kerosene lanterns, Clyde Tombaugh must have had an incredible view of the Milky Way, and of the planets embedded in the night sky.

To build his telescopes, Tombaugh used pieces of farm equipment and he ground his own lenses and mirrors. Over the next two years, he made better telescopes and he drew detailed maps of Jupiter and Mars.

He sent his drawings to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and they offered Tombaugh a trial job. At the observatory, he searched for Planet X.

Tombaugh studied photographs taken days apart, and by analyzing the difference in those pictures, he discovered Pluto – on February 18, 1930. He was 24 years old.

In 2006, NASA launched the New Horizons space probe which is aimed toward Pluto, 4.67 billion miles away. The space craft is providing us with photos and data which expand our understanding of the universe.

In July of this year, New Horizons will come within 6,000 miles of the planet.

The probe is about the size and shape of a grand piano, and attached to that probe are ashes of Clyde Tombaugh. NASA has sent the man who discovered Pluto on a fly-by of his own planet. However, shortly after the spacecraft launched in 2006, astronomers reclassified Pluto, demoting it to a dwarf planet.

As we speak, New Horizons is flying through the open arms of space, where there is not a breath of air, cruising through deep silence, against the palette of black and light.

When New Horizons nears Pluto on July 14, I hope we will all pause to remember the Kansan who courted dark nights, the man who called out to Planet X – and it answered.

And perhaps out there in deep space, a star will reflect off of the spacecraft, a whisper of light, as Tombaugh sails through the afterlife.

Cheryl Unruh


  1. Thank you! I loved this piece, and how perfect that it was played on Kansas Day! KMUW followed it with a recording of a single, tender male voice singing “Home on the Range” accompanied only by guitar. I had to sit in the parking lot of the Post Office (not the usual driveway) to finish listening before I could go in.

  2. Cheryl, How lovely to hear your physical voice reading your voice on the page in honor of Kansas Day, a double gift for Kansas and for the rest of us~

  3. I just read this in my KU Alumni magazine and come to your site because I am a flyover person that now lives in Utah. I love the mountains and varied landscape of Utah and the changes of the seasons here, but it is still not Kansas. I miss the thunder storms and the wind playing with the wheat. I downloaded some of your pictures for my wallpapers. Thank you for trying to put my home into words.

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