When NASA’s space probe, New Horizons, accomplished its unprecedented flyby of Pluto today, it carried on board with it a very special package — the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the American astronomer who first discovered Pluto.
Tombaugh discovered Pluto on February 18, 1930, when he was 24-years-old and was tasked with helping to find a planet beyond Neptune, while working for the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto was tantamount in expanding our understanding of the Solar System, including the Kuiper Belt, of which Pluto is a part. Once the flyby of Pluto is completed, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper belt to learn all that it can about the farthest region of our solar system.
Clyde Tombaugh passed away in 1997, two days and nine years before New Horizons would launch on its flyby mission to Pluto. According to Dr. Alan Stern, New Horizons’ Principal Investigator, who worked with Tombaugh, it was the astronomer’s wish for his ashes to fly on a mission bound for Pluto.
Annette Tombaugh, Clyde’s daughter, sent about an ounce of her father’s ashes to Stern in a two-inch canister that was then attached to the inside of New Horizons’ upper deck.
“When he looked at Pluto, it was just a speck of light… To actually see the planet that he had discovered and find out more about its atmosphere, find out more of what it is and actually get to see the moons of Pluto, he would have been astounded.”
The canister where Tombaugh’ ashes are held was inscribed with a special message, written by Alan Stern himself, before it was placed on board Pluto’s flyby probe.
“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).”
Professor Tombaugh’s remains are only one of the nine mementos placed on board the probe. As you can probably guess, the number nine was chosen as an homage to Pluto’s former classification among the planets of Earth’s solar system. The other tokens on board include two American flags; a piece of the very first privately funded crewed spacecraft, SpaceCraftOne; a state quarter from Florida — the probe’s launch site — and one from Maryland, where the spacecraft was built; two CDs with the names of 434,000 people; and photos of team members.
A 1991 U.S. postage stamp that reads “Pluto, Not Yet Explored,” is also on board New Horizons. A sentiment which, of course, is no longer true, as of today’s flyby of Pluto.
“I wanted to fly it as a sort of ‘in your face’ thing,” said Stern.