The ashes of Clyde Tombaugh are traveling the cosmos on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft.
Artist's concept of the New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches Pluto. (© NASA)
When 24-year-old Lowell Observatory assistant Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto on February 18, 1930, he probably never dreamed he would one day visit the distant planet. But on July 14, 2015, that’s just what he did—or at least a small part of him. Tombaugh, a founding member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Las Cruces, New Mexico, died in 1997, but a portion of his ashes was sent on nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft, which arrived at Pluto in July after a nine-year, 3.6 billion-mile trip.
New Horizons left Earth on January 19, 2006, and according to nasa it has traveled a longer time and farther away than any previous space mission to reach its primary destination: Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Its mission is to provide the first up-close observations of Pluto and the most distant objects in the solar system.
A small canister holding Tombaugh’s ashes was attached to the underside of the spacecraft, with an inscription that reads: “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).”
After flying by Pluto, New Horizons will continue on past Kuiper Belt objects and will eventually leave the solar system and enter interstellar space. Tombaugh used to say of his detailed study of the stars, “I’ve really had a tour of the heavens.” He certainly has now.
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Sonja L. Cohen is deputy managing editor of UU World and a lifelong Unitarian Universalist.
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