New Horizons is carrying the ashes of Pluto's discoverer to Pluto

Illustration for article titled New Horizons is carrying the ashes of Pluto's discoverer to Pluto

Later this week, NASA's New Horizons probe will finally be close enough to Pluto to begin observing the dwarf planet and its moons. Along with a bevy of scientific instrument, the probe has also been carrying a sentimental payload: a tiny tin of the ashes belonging to Clyde Tombaugh, also known as the man who discovered Pluto.


In 1930, spaceflight was still but a dream and and Tombaugh was a young astronomer peering at the sky from the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. He eventually found a curious object in his photographs from night to night—this is the icy ball that would become known as Pluto. Tombaugh died on January 17, 1997, years before Pluto was demoted from planet status.

Illustration for article titled New Horizons is carrying the ashes of Pluto's discoverer to Pluto

Tombaugh's ashes on New Horizons. Credit: JHUAPL

When NASA launched New Horizons in 2006, it decided to honor Tombaugh's wish of having his ashes sent to space. A small container with an ounce of his ashes was affixed to the spacecraft and engraved with the following:

Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system's "third zone"

Adelle and Muron's boy, Patricia's husband, Annette and Alden's father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend: Clyde W. Tombaugh (1906-1997)

Now New Horizons is at the end of its near decade-long journey to the edge of the solar system, and the Tombaugh's ashes are probably the furthest any human has made it from Earth.

The spacecraft is carrying a handful of other secret objects, too, including a small piece of SpaceShip One, a U.S. stamp proclaiming "Pluto: Not Yet Explored," and state quarters for Maryland and Florida, the states where New Horizons was assembled and launched from, respectively. Scientists, they can be a sentimental bunch.


Top image: Artist representation of New Horizons arriving at Pluto. Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)

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Recently, I got the chance to be in a room for a talk by Alan Stern (principal investigator for New Horizons). He narrated a very moving story of how the scientific community unanimously agreed on sending the ashes onboard the space-craft and also how the family readily handed them over.

There are several other factors that make this mission very special: IIRC, this is the fastest spacecraft ever launched (the Voyagers are now faster because they got more gravity assists) - it reached the moon in 3hrs which is equivalent to LA-NYC in ~4mins; it's the lightest exploring spacecraft launched [NH: 1120lbs, Cassini: 4685lbs, Voyager: 1500lbs] ; the amp draw is extremely minimal etc. It was a great talk.

Another great fact: we know so little of Pluto mainly due to shoddy images we have. The current ones are at such a poor resolution that if Earth were imaged similarly, we wouldn't be able to differentiate the continents. With New Horizons, we will go from that level of understanding to images a million times more detailed - equivalent to differentiating houses on Earth.

7pm on July 14th is when we would receive the first signal. To save power, New Horizons can only operate its cameras & rx-tx systems one at a time. So, even though it reaches Pluto earlier, it will take some images and then turn towards Earth to transmit a "Hello, I'm here" pic/msg reaching us by 7pm on 7/14. Watch out!