When NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft passed within 7,800 miles of Pluto on Tuesday, the Kansas man who discovered the dwarf planet 85 years ago was there too.
A small amount of American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes were on board the probe, which culminated its 3 billion mile journey by zipping past Pluto at 31,000 mph.
The New Horizons team gathered at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., was waiting Tuesday night for signals that all had gone well. Finally, 13 hours after the actual flyby, the scientists received word from the spacecraft: Triumph.
Confirmation of mission success — photographs taken and information collected — came after a day of both jubilation and tension for the New Horizons team. The craft had already beamed back the best-ever images of Pluto and its big moon Charon.
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As scientists and the nation turned their eyes to outer space, Tombaugh’s boyhood home remembered its hero.
About 160 miles northwest of Wichita is Burdett, a farm town with a population of 300, including cats and dogs (according to its website).
On Monday, roughly 60 residents and guests gathered at the town’s senior center to celebrate Tombaugh, who explored new frontiers but stayed close to his roots.
Lee Musil, a retired farmer and stockman who has lived 35 years in Burdett, said Tombaugh would travel back to the town once a year. He attended high school reunions. He went to services at the Methodist church. He helped on his family’s farm during harvest.
“He always maintained an attitude and mental state of a humble Kansas farm boy,” Musil said. “He was also one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met.”
In 1982, during the dedication of a highway marker honoring the astronomer, Musil got the one-hour opportunity to interview Tombaugh.
“At the time, he was 76 and so keen-minded,” Musil said. “He was alert, spontaneous, very succinct and just right on target.”
Tombaugh’s nephew Glenn Tombaugh, pastor of Mount Vernon United Methodist Church in Wichita, was on hand, and so was Glenn’s sister, Ruth Martinez.
“His gift was not only finding the last planet,” Glenn Tombaugh said in an interview Tuesday. “It was his idea to look beyond the solar system, the Kuiper belt, to discover other heavenly bodies.”
As a memorial to Tombaugh, the town’s miniature golf course is getting a celestial-themed redesign: Each of the nine holes will be named after a planet. The ninth hole will be dedicated to Tombaugh and his discovery.
Tombaugh died in 1997 at age 90.
It was in 1930, when he was just 24, that Tombaugh became the only American to discover a planet.
He was working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., when he discovered the planet by examining hundreds of thousands of tiny stars on photos of the sky taken with a telescope.
Although he did not yet have a college education, he did have persistence.
“There are 15 million stars in the sky as bright or brighter than Pluto,” Tombaugh told National Public Radio in 1995. “I had to pick one image out of the 15 million. That’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, and that’s what most people aren’t willing to do. It’s brutal.
“But I knew that if I didn’t do this job, they’d send me back home. And this is much better than pitching hay.”
Pluto was still a full-fledged planet when New Horizons rocketed away in 2006, but was demoted to dwarf status later that year.
Still, the pictures already gathered by New Horizons are “mind-boggling to put it mildly,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said Tuesday. Pluto has proved to be bigger and redder than anyone imagined, he said, and the data may put the faraway world back in the primary planet lineup.
As principal scientist Alan Stern told reporters Monday, “The Pluto system is enchanting in its strangeness, its alien beauty.”
Pluto is the largest object in the so-called Kuiper belt, considered the third zone of the solar system after the inner rocky planets and outer gaseous ones. This unknown territory is a shooting gallery of comets and other small bodies.
An extension of the $720 million mission, not yet approved, could have New Horizons flying past another much smaller Kuiper belt object before departing the solar system.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.