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Did You Know There are 9 Secret Items Hidden on Pluto Mission New Horizons?

This object is a stowaway on board New Horizons.  Credit:  JHU/APL

This object is a stowaway on board New Horizons. Credit: JHU/APL

The New Horizons spacecraft is now just a few months away from its encounter with Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, arriving in July, 2015. Back in 2008, the New Horizons team revealed the secret stowaways they had hidden on board the spacecraft. Nine objects (can you guess why there are nine?!) were attached and sent along on the ten-year journey to the outer reaches of our Solar System. Believe it or not, included in the items are one actual person, and parts of several thousands of other people…

Here’s the complete list:

1. One actual person. Well, part of an actual person. A portion of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes were put in a container and attached to the underside of the spacecraft – see image above. Here’s the inscription on the container: “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).”

2. Me and about 434,000 other people, too! The “Send Your Name to Pluto” CD-ROM with more than over four hundred thousand names of people who wanted to participate in this great journey of exploration. I’m pumped about being along for the ride, and I hope you are on board, too!

3. A CD-ROM with pictures of New Horizons project personnel.

4. A Florida state quarter, from the state where New Horizons was launched.

5. A Maryland state quarter, from the state where New Horizons was built.

6. A small piece cut from SpaceShip One is installed on New Horizons’ lower inside deck, with a two-sided inscription. Front: “To commemorate its historic role in the advancement of spaceflight, this piece of SpaceShip One is being flown on another historic spacecraft: New Horizons. New Horizons is Earth’s first mission to Pluto, the farthest known planet in our solar system.” Back: “SpaceShip One was Earth’s first privately funded manned spacecraft. SpaceShip One flew from the United States of America in 2004.”

Piece from SpaceShip One.  Credit: JHU/APL

Piece from SpaceShip One. Credit: JHU/APL

7. A U.S. Flag.

8. Another version of a U.S. Flag.

9. The 1991 U.S. stamp proclaiming, “Pluto: Not Yet Explored”

Pluto US postal stamp from 1991.  Credit:  JHU/APL

Pluto US postal stamp from 1991. Credit: JHU/APL

New Horizons’ principal investigator Dr. Alan Stern disclosed the list of items at a ceremony at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, where a model of the New Horizons spacecraft was added to the museum. Back in 2008, Stern petitioned the U.S. Postal Service to issue a new stamp for Pluto after the spacecraft arrived at Pluto, maybe something like this:

Proposed new stamp for New Horizons.  Credit:  JHU/APL

Proposed new stamp for New Horizons. Credit: JHU/APL

Source: New Horizons website

We originally wrote this in 2008, but we thought you’d get a kick out of it since New Horizons is so close. We made a couple of updates to the text.


Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • dollhopf October 28, 2008, 10:05 AM

    Too far away from the sun!

    Sensors depending on input from “visible light” would not evolve out there. Under those conditions every item linked to recognition through eyesight is questionable.

    • Jeffrey Boerst January 12, 2015, 1:46 AM

      Ermmm… The objects were not included for possible beings in the vicinity to see, if that’s what you’re implying……

  • Huygens October 28, 2008, 10:52 AM

    Sagan knew and admitted that the odds of any ETI finding the Voyager or Pioneer probes are very small (read Murmurs of Earth), but he also knew that it was an opportunity to take.

    The actions of the New Horizons team certainly is representative of our times, which is not necessarily a compliment.

    They just were not interested in the amazing and rare oportunity they were offered, nor did they attempt to ask anyone else to help them in that regard.

    One thing is more certain: Future humans will know the probes are out there and will have a chance to find them. Thus these probes serve as very long-lived time capsules of our recent era – longer than any human-made objects will survive on Earth.

    To throw merely trinkets and items that will perish in short order is a disservice on so many levels.

    And as for Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes: Was anyone consulted about sending human remains into the galaxy? Even if they are so much charred carbon, I would think somebody might have had to consult on launching human remains on a government-funded space probe.

    As I said, not much consideration was put into the items placed aboard New Horizons. No doubt the cynical members of this generation will say So What, but there may be consequences down the road for our children from this lack of foresight.

    • Robert January 11, 2015, 10:08 PM

      Their choices and reasons for them are at least as valid as yours.
      As for “cynical members of this generation”? I guess you ought to know.

      • Pete January 11, 2015, 11:33 PM

        Thank you, Robert!

    • Jeffrey Boerst January 12, 2015, 1:48 AM

      I bet you’re a gem at cocktail parties…

  • ruf October 28, 2008, 5:42 PM

    (can you guess why there are nine?!)

    No — why?

    • kkt January 12, 2015, 1:57 PM

      “Nine for mortal men, doomed to die.”

  • james October 28, 2008, 10:25 PM

    Cause the guys at NASA disagree with the 8 planets!

  • SciFi-Fan October 29, 2008, 5:47 AM

    I guess it’s from “DeepSpace Nine” of
    Star Trek series…. :-)

  • Huygens October 30, 2008, 11:15 AM

    Since UT doesn’t seem to like URLs attached to posts for some reason, go to the Web site CollectSPACE and look for the interview from October 27 with Alan Stern on his reasons for not putting an organized, detailed, easy to comprehend message on New Horizons.

    At one point he had team members make a trip to a local Burger King to find a Florida quarter. This should give you some idea as to how much thought and planning went into sending a message to the future and/or other intelligences.

    Decades after leaving Earth and then the Solar System, what is it that most people think about when they think about Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2?

    You guessed it.

    They may think about Clyde Tombaugh’ ashes, the stamps, the quarters, and the CDs on NH, but how much can one say about them after stating the basics?

    By contrast, people have written whole books on the Pioneer and Voyager messages to the Cosmos. See the 1978 Random House book Murmurs of Earth as one prime example.

    As I said, it is too late to do much about NH’s amateur time capsule content, but we CAN make sure that information of significance is placed on all future interstellar vessels.

    Hopefully many of them will not come from NASA, where they continue to show a lack of imagination and forward thinking when it comes to the much wider picture as evidenced by agreeing with the NH team not to bother with even a Pioneer style plaque.

    As a counter example, look what the ESA put on their Rosetta comet probe: A disc containing thousands of human languages provided by the Long Now Foundation. I guarantee there will be many grateful and happy future historians and linguists one day, to say nothing of descendants from those cultures whose languages are dying out.

  • Myles Nicholas November 1, 2008, 7:07 PM

    surely we should be sending allsorts of bacteria instead of stamps. Let us send our germ plasm to populate the universe.
    It might die, but at least we tried.

  • PapaKAZ November 2, 2008, 4:11 AM

    Why only an American flag (and why 2)?
    Sure we did build it, but the messages should represent all living creatures on the earth!
    It won’t matter to any ETI that we divided our planet into pieces and called them countries, and who knows… maybe an ETI will have more in common with a spider or fish then with humans.

    • Denver January 11, 2015, 3:32 PM

      the message wasn’t sent by “all living creatures on the earth”.

      The data that humans are individuals first, clanish second, and utopian third, is excellent information to provide Eeetee.

  • sutari November 7, 2008, 10:10 AM

    What has been missing from the above posts is the REASON for these items. As pointed out by Hunnter, “every gram counts”. That is correct, especially with a spacecraft launched in this era. These items were places on the NH spacecraft as ‘dead weights’, in order to stabilize the spin of the spacecraft while en route to Pluto. While some predictions of the need for certain masses in certain places might have been determined in advance, using models, it may have been quite late in the development, during testing of the actual assembled spacecraft or mockups, that the final mass and location of these dead weights was known. So some of these stowaways snuck on board pretty late in the game- as in, “well, we need another XXgrams here – hmm, a quarter is about that big, that would work, let’s get one from Florida and, oh, we need another, well, get one from Maryland too”.

    There was not a lot of time to plan for what exactly was needed – and, as Stern has said, his team did not want to be diverted from getting to the launch pad by arguments about what should go. This was not a Voyager or Rosetta development. Time and mass were not a luxury this team had.

    I think the list of items is pretty good and it shows a good snapshot of where we are right now.

    • Jeffrey Boerst January 12, 2015, 1:52 AM

      Kudos for a LUCID comment on the items, to you!

  • sparkle sista ;) April 2, 2009, 11:06 AM

    we love you pluto!!!! way to go!!!!!!!!!! we’ll learn about you!!!!!!!!!!! 😉 :) :*

    WE *HEART* PLUTO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Aqua4U January 11, 2015, 6:48 PM

    What’s another 6 months after waiting this long? Launch date was Jan. 19, 2006 and the space craft was soon traveling at 36,737mph. The highest launch speed of a human-made object.

  • Tim Reyes January 11, 2015, 10:53 PM

    Great article to repeat. Just having a bit of Clyde on board makes the effort of 9 items all worthwhile.

  • Pete January 11, 2015, 11:41 PM

    Discovered just before I was born, I’ve waited a lifetime to learn more about Pluto, and prayed I would live long enough to see this voyage through.
    Thank you, Nancy! I am going to print out your article to become part of my own record of this endeavor, and to be passed down to my grandsons.

  • Seth-V-K January 12, 2015, 4:07 AM

    Coming to take your oil Pluto.!