Eighty-five years after peering through a telescope and discovering the solar system’s smallest planet (or dwarf planet if you have no sympathy with little old Pluto), Clyde W. Tombaugh’s ashes are arriving at the very same planetary body – 4.8 billion km away.
The plaque on the spacecraft, New Horizons, reads: Interned herein are the 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).
The vessel making this epic voyage is not the Viking ship you’d expect to suit the tale, but rather mankind’s first satellite sent to Pluto to discover more about the mysterious body. The New Horizons spacecraft has been travelling for 9 years and, as of yesterday, has begun its investigation for the ground-breaking mission in what is called Approach Phase 1.
“This is a watershed event that signals the end of New Horizons’ crossing of a vast ocean of space to the very frontier of our solar system, and the beginning of the mission’s primary objective: the exploration of Pluto and its many moons in 2015,” said Alan Stern, the principal investigator for New Horizons, when the spacecraft awoke last month.
At a distance of 217 261 440 km from Pluto, New Horizons still has some way to go before it will be able to beam back the first hi-res glimpses of the elusive dwarf planet, when it will pass within 10 000km on July 14. The great distance from Earth will mean that the signal will take another 4.5 hours to reach us when it is sent, though.
Starting on January 25, the spacecraft will be capturing images of the Pluto system as part of the “optical navigation campaign to make sure the spacecraft is on course,” says project scientist and co-investigator Hal Weaver.
These images will show Pluto as no more than a two-pixel dot in the distance on a computer screen, but will gradually grow larger as the spacecraft draws ever nearer. NASA will use these and more images to create a movie that will be released during February.
From April 5th Approach Phase 2 will be underway, which will shift the focus of the operations to science rather than simply navigational requirements.
By mid-May, the images New Horizons will be sending back will surpass any taken before, even those with the aid of the Hubble Space Telescope.
June 23 will see the beginning of the final phase of approach. The mission is to map the planet’s surface, investigate the atmosphere and measure the geological composition of the body.
As the mission draws to a close, and Tombaugh’s ashes reach their final resting place, a place he watched so long ago and so very far from home, one other item along for the ride will symbolise why we went so far.
A US postage stamp from 1991, one of the 8 other objects on board, reads “Pluto: Not yet explored”, and as it passes into redundancy, the vanguard spacecraft and the man who started it all will have completed a quest across both space and time. For that, we can all be inspired by the final frontier.