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31 October 2019

An Astronomical Cemetery for Halloween Night

Estimated reading time Time 5 to read

The history of astronomy has left us with many mortuary stories and references. Below we review the most famous in order to transport us to an imaginary space cemetery, as eerie and tenebrous as the decorations on Halloween, the terrifying surprises and the disturbing stories of the darkest night of the year.

Funeral sites off the planet

Memorials dedicated to illustrious personalities, armies killed in great battles, and powerful kings —such as the Lincoln Monument in Washington, D.C., the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, or the Pyramids of Egypt— attract millions of visitors each year. Yet there is one memorial that has not received a single visit; not because it has little relevance, but because it is actually off the planet. The first funereal monument on another world is The Fallen Astronaut, a small 8.9-centimeter-high aluminium statue sculpted by Belgian artist Paul Van Hoeydonck and erected in the Hadley Rille, a very long, sinuous crack on the surface of the Moon.

View of Commemorative plaque left on moon at Hadley-Apennine landing site. Credit: NASA

Creating it was the idea of the crew of Apollo 15, who landed nearby and on August 1, 1971 placed it in memory of the astronauts and cosmonauts who had died. Next to the sculpture is a plaque with the names of the 14 men who until then had given their lives for the exploration of space, although it also pays tribute to those who have died since then.

Epitaphs of astronomers

Much more than an astronomer, Isaac Newton formulated the law of universal gravitation that governs the motion of all astronomical objects and is the basis of astrophysics. To him we owe the law of gravity, the laws of motion, the laws of optics and even differential calculus — which still terrifies many students today. While there is no epitaph that can live up to his legacy, in Westminster Abbey one can read an attempt on the monument near his tomb. Translated from the Latin, the inscription reads:

Here he rests Isaac Newton, Knight who with almost divine mental strength, and with its own unique mathematical principles, explored the movements and figures of the planets, the paths of comets, the tides of the sea, the dissimilarities in rays of light and, what no other scholar had ever imagined before, the properties of the colours thus produced.

Diligent, sagacious and faithful in his expositions of nature, antiquity and the holy scriptures, he vindicated by his philosophy the majesty of Almighty God and expressed in his conduct the simplicity of the Gospel.

Mortals rejoice that there has existed so great an ornament of the human race!

So great is Newton’s work that the poet Alexander Pope, buried right next to Newton, dedicated his own epitaph to magnify the reputation of his crypt neighbour, in a kind of funerary retweet:

“Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night:God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.”

Before Newton, Johannes Kepler had listed —but failed to demonstrate— the laws describing the movement of the planets. All his life he tried to reconcile the movements of the planets with the five perfect mathematical solids, without success. Disappointed, he surrendered to the evidence and formulated his laws on the basis of what he observed in the sky and not in accordance with what he desired —an example of scientific spirit, very unusual in those times. His tomb was destroyed by the Swedish army during the Thirty Years’ War (in the first half of the 17th century) but his epitaph has reached us. A dark epitaph for a dark life:

I used to measure the heavens, now I measure the shadows of Earth.

Although my mind was sky-bound, the shadow of my body rests here.

However, the darkest epitaph is undoubtedly that of Giordano Bruno. In the 16th century, this religious thinker and philosopher postulated the idea that around the stars we see in the night, there must exist other worlds that, like Earth, host life and civilizations like ours. These ideas, together with his defence of the Copernican system, did not please the Inquisition, which interpreted them as a denial that man was the centre of creation. Bruno was locked up and tortured, but he never renounced his ideas. In the end he was condemned for heresy and executed, burned alive in a bonfire at the Campo de Fiori in Rome.

Today we know that he was right: Earth is not the centre of the universe; there are other planets orbiting other stars and perhaps there is life on other worlds. In due course, almost three centuries after his death, just at the place where he burned, an impressive statue with this inscription was erected:

To Bruno, from the century he foresaw. Here, where the pyre burned.

Monument to Giordano Bruno, Campo de’ Fiori, Rome. Credit: Berthold Werner

This is much shorter homage than the farewell he wrote himself:

I have fought a lot, thought I could win, but destiny and nature suffocated my meditations and efforts, but it is already something to be on the battlefield, because winning depends a lot on luck, but I did what I could and I don’t believe that anyone in future generations will deny it, I didn’t fear death, I never surrendered to anyone, instead of a cowardly life, I chose a brave death.

Ashes in space

If there is one episode of cosmic justice for astronomers, it would undoubtedly be that of Eugene Shoemaker. He studied the craters left behind by the nuclear bomb tests of the 1960s and discovered their similarity to the natural craters on Earth and the Moon. There was a clear relationship: their origin was the impact of meteorites. In those years it was thought that all craters, including those on the Moon, had a volcanic and not a meteoric origin. While his ideas were questioned for years, thanks to him it is now widely accepted that the origin of many craters are the impacts of meteorites. In 1993, when his ideas had finally been accepted, he discovered a comet, the Shoemaker-Levy 9, which a year later proved his theory true by colliding with Jupiter: it was the first large-scale impact observed live and was broadcast worldwide.

After Shoemaker passed away in 1999, his family decided to incinerate and scatter his ashes in a special place. NASA loaded some of his ashes into the Lunar Prospector space probe and they were scattered on the Moon, among the craters that fascinated him so much in life and that he could not see in person. He was actually set to be the first scientist to travel to the Moon during the Apollo missions, but was eventually unable to do so after being diagnosed with Addison’s disease.

Tombaugh’s ashes aboard the New Horizons space probe. Credit: NASA

The debate over whether Pluto is a planet or not began in 2006 after the International Astronomical Union reclassified it as a “dwarf planet.” Its discoverer Clyde Tombaugh passed away long before he could defend one or the other classification. In spite of everything, it can be said of him that he was the first to get to Pluto and has been closer to the icy body than anyone else, or at least a large part of the atoms that made up his body. His remains were incinerated and a third of his ashes were loaded into the New Horizons probe that flew past Pluto in 2015. The spacecraft is now leaving the solar system for interstellar space, where it will fly for thousands of years until it meets something again. Its destiny and that of Pluto’s discoverer are inexorably united.

Borja Tosar


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