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Astronomer's Hometown Celebrates Pluto Fly-by

Astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, born in rural Illinois in 1906, discovered what became the ninth planet in our solar system – Pluto. Today, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is providing the clearest images of this distant body. The probe's encounter with the dwarf planet is an historic moment for the astronomer's hometown.

Streator, Illinois, is about as far away from Pluto as you can get on planet Earth.

But Pluto is at the center of Streator’s universe.

“We are pro-Pluto in Streator,” said Streator City Councilman Ed Brozak.

The reason why began in the backyard of a rural Streator farmhouse almost a century ago, when 12-year-old Clyde Tombaugh looked to the heavens through this telescope made by his uncle, who was Judith Bliss’s grandfather. What he saw through it, says Bliss, changed Tombaugh's life.

“They looked at the moon that night. And that was the first time Clyde had seen anything through a telescope. And he was very impressed,” Bliss said.

Tombaugh went on to build his own telescopes that took the human eye further into the cosmos.

In 1930, from the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona, Tombaugh spotted the celestial body we know as Pluto. The discovery made headlines in Streator.

What also made headlines 76 years later was the International Astronomical Union’s reclassification of Pluto as a “dwarf” planet.

“I think we all feel, it was a planet, we knew it as a planet, so why is not it a planet?” asked Streator Mayor Jimmie Lansford.

But what the International Astronomical Union took away from Pluto, it has in a way, given back to Streator.

“With all the controversy over the last several years, it has really brought attention to the city of Streator,” Councilman Brozak said.

So planet or not, Streator used Pluto’s spotlight to honor its famous son.

“There are new road signs going up on Main Street and will be dedicated very soon, 'Pluto Pathway,” Brozak said.

There is also a mural of Tombaugh in Streator’s downtown, and a plaque honoring his discovery that stands outside city hall. And there are T-shirts as well.

But, Bliss says the greatest honor to Tombaugh is not bound to these earthly confines. It is on the New Horizons spacecraft - her cousin’s cremated remains.

“It is kind of neat that someone from Streator has ashes that are almost to Pluto, or going by Pluto,” Judith Bliss said.

In mapping out the far reaches of our solar system, Tombaugh put Streator on the map of history. Now, a little part of Streator, and a part of Bliss -- the DNA she shared with her cousin -- hurtles on through space, continuing the journey on New Horizons as it maps out unchartered depths of our solar system.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.