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An Astronomer's Memorial: Cremation Urn of Clyde William Tombaugh Sent to Pluto

by Linda Banks

“I used to think about how nice it would be to visit the planets.
Of course, I didn’t expect to see it in my lifetime.
I knew it would happen someday.”   -- Clyde Tombaugh

That someday came for Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer credited with discovering the dwarf planet Pluto. Nine years after his death in 1997, small amounts of Tombaugh’s cremation ashes were launched into space aboard the NASA ship, New Horizons. The robot-like ship, about the size of a piano, embarked on a mission to Pluto and beyond. His 93-year-old widow, Patricia Tombaugh, and other family members were present at Cape Canaveral for the launch in 2006.

 

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).

Inscribed on cremation urn holding Tombaugh’s ashes onboard New Horizons

 

Discovering his own memorial and creating a unique legacy

The website Kansapedia of the Kansas Historical Society proudly features Tombaugh’s early years in Kansas and his legacy.

Clyde W. Tombaugh was born in 1906 in Streator, Illinois. In 1922 his family moved to a farm near Burdett [Kansas]. As a youngster, his interest in astronomy was encouraged by his father and uncle. Tombaugh was a self-taught amateur astronomer who made his own telescopes from hand ground mirrors and parts of farm equipment. He graduated from Burdett High School in 1925. In 1928 Tombaugh made a nine-inch telescope that enabled him to make very accurate and detailed sketches of Jupiter and Mars. Seeking advice from professional astronomers, he sent his sketches to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. As coincidence would have it, the Lowell staff was looking for an amateur astronomer capable of operating their new photographic telescope. They were sufficiently impressed with his work to offer Tombaugh the position on a trial basis.

Tombaugh was hired by the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1928. Businessman Percival Lowell built the nonprofit astronomical research center to study the planet Mars. In 1905, he turned his telescope toward the search for Planet X. Tombaugh joined the search. The telescope at the Lowell Observatory was equipped with a camera that would take two photographs of the sky on different days.

Tombaugh spent several days a week studying each pair of photographs, which contained over 150,000 stars, and sometimes nearly a million stars. On February 18, 1930, Tombaugh noticed a difference between two sets of pictures taken a month apart. After studying an unidentified object to confirm it, the staff of Lowell Observatory officially announced the discovery of a ninth planet on March 13, 1930.

Pluto is over 3 ½ billion miles away from Earth, 25 times further than Mars. New Horizons flew about 36,000 miles per hour, the fastest flight of any spacecraft ever launched. It passed the Moon in nine hours. In July 2015, over nine years after its launch and 18 years after Tombaugh’s death, New Horizons passed within 6,200 miles of Pluto’s surface, the planet he helped discover.

 

Tombaugh loved the stars and constructed over 30 telescopes.

Unique memorial sites – where would you like to spend eternity?

Others have chosen to have their cremated remains launched into space including Gene Rodenberry (the creator of Star Trek) and Timothy Leary. Mr. Tombaugh is the first to have ashes sent outside the Earth’s solar system.

Space burials are not only for celebrities. In 1997 the company Celestis hosted the first private, post-cremation memorial spaceflight. Celestis “helps families honor the memory of loved ones through unique, post-cremation memorial spaceflights.” Their memorial spaceflightsplace a symbolic portion of cremated remains into Earth [sic] orbit, onto the lunar surface, and into deep space. Missions into space that return the cremated remains to Earth are also available. Your loved one will venture into space as part of a real space mission, riding alongside a commercial or scientific satellite.”

On the far side of the moon, or in our back yard – where would you like to spend eternity? Our planning guide, “Memorial Urn and Site Options,” addresses things to consider when choosing an urn and a memorial site. Ideas about death have changed and so have memorial options. We have choices:

  • Church funerals and interment are not our only choices.
  • People make end of life plans to reflect personalities and passions.
  • Cremation ashes can be scattered from mountaintops, into an ocean or lake, or any place that has meaning.
  • Scattering urns are available to help families scatter the ashes.
  • Biodegradable urns are made to use for land or water burials, or perhaps a space memorial.
  • Cremation jewelry and keepsake urns hold small amounts of ashes and serve as a closely held memorial.

Cremation urns are available in all materials, designs and styles to suit the memorial and final resting place.

You can learn more about the New Horizons mission and see photos it has taken at the official NASA website. And you can follow the path of New Horizons holding the remains of Mr. Tombaugh.

Images credit NASA

Linda Banks provided extended end-of-life care for her beloved Aunt who was like her mother. When her brother suddenly died, she was instrumental in orchestrating all of the details of his final wishes to be cremated. Linda has been an active blogger for ten years, including blogging about Willie Nelson and his family. Willie told her recently that he reads her blog every day.

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