Pluto, Here We Come! A Look At New Horizons' Strange 'Cargo' Ahead Of Historic Flyby


The New Horizons spacecraft is closing in on the icy dwarf planet Pluto.

As it comes to the culmination of its nearly-decade-long journey, the vehicle is bringing some strange cargo to the distant body. Aboard the spacecraft is a small sample of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930.

Tombaugh, born February 4, 1906, was raised as a farmer but was always fascinated by astronomy. In order to learn more about the planets and stars on a limited budget, the young man learned to build telescopes. He would construct the instruments, often out of farm equipment, and carefully ground his own mirrors, a time-consuming process.

Studying the planets, the budding astronomer made detailed drawings of Jupiter and Mars, along with other heavenly bodies. These works led to Tombaugh being hired by the Lowell Observatory, where researchers put him to work cleaning the roof of the facility, as well as carrying out other menial tasks.

The 24-year-old first recorded images of the distant body on February 18, 1930.

In addition to the discovery of the frozen dwarf planet, Tombaugh was also the first to record hundreds of previously-unknown asteroids and stars, along with two comets.

Tombaugh died in 1997, nine years before the New Horizons spacecraft was launched to Pluto, then considered the ninth planet of the Solar System. Just months after launch, astronomers downgraded the status of Pluto down to that of a dwarf planet. This change excited the passions of one of Tombaugh's children.

"If Pluto had not been demoted, I would probably not be this involved in it. I would never have gotten involved with the Great Planet Debate. I would never have met Neil Tyson. I would never have done the NOVA show. I would never have met so many wonderful people. And that has been my journey," Annette Tombaugh-Sitze, now 74 years old, said.

Back in 2005, NASA announced it was accepting names to be sent to Pluto, along with the spacecraft. Contained on a compact disk in the vehicle are the names of 434,738 people, including popular science host Bill Nye, technology developer and inventor Elon Musk and the first person to walk on the Moon, Neil Armstrong. People who are not certain if they joined or not can search a database of the names flying to Pluto and beyond, along with ashes of the famed astronomer Clyde Tombaugh.

On July 14, 2015, at 7:50 a.m. EDT, the New Horizons spacecraft will come within 7,750 miles of the frozen dwarf planet. When it does so, the distant body will also be visited by the ashes of the person who first laid sight on the object 85 years ago.

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