Ashes from the cremated remains of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto, are on the way there.
Adam Rifkin stashed this in Factoids
THE first space mission to Pluto contains an unusual piece of cargo: ashes from the cremated remains of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered the outermost planet in 1930.
After two days of delays, the New Horizons spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral on Thursday, on a nine-year, 4.8 billion-kilometre journey to the edge of the solar system.
New Horizons is the fastest craft ever built by NASA, designed to reach a top speed of nearly 76,000kmh next year by using Jupiter's gravity to slingshot itself into the outer solar system. It is expected to reach Pluto in July 2015.
Tombaugh, the only American to find a planet in the solar system, died in 1997, when scientists were still working to win approval and funding for a Pluto mission. His widow, Patricia Tombaugh, 93, and other relatives were present at the launch.
"Some of Clyde's ashes are on their way to Pluto today," Alan Stern, the mission's team leader, said after the perfect launch.
New Horizons is powered by a small plutonium-fired electric generator. Its instruments include three cameras, for visible-light, infrared and ultraviolet images, and three spectrometers to study Pluto's thin atmosphere and surface features.
Once near its target, New Horizons is to conduct about five months of studies, including a closest-approach dash that takes it within 10,000 kilometres of Pluto's surface and 27,000 kilometres from the planet's large moon, Charon. The craft will also study two smaller moons found late last year by the Hubble Space Telescope.
The mission is to continue past Pluto, possibly visiting one or two other large objects in the Kuiper Belt, a huge region of icy planetoids.