Space burial is a burial procedure in which a small sample of the cremated ashes of the deceased are placed in a capsule the size of a tube of lipstick and are launched into space using a rocket. As of 2004, samples of about 150 people have been “buried” in space.
The effort and cost of launching an object into space is very high. Furthermore, the cost is directly related to the payload, i.e. the mass of the object. Therefore various measures are taken to reduce the mass of the burial. The corpse is cremated, reducing the mass of the remains to about 5% of the initial mass. Also, only a small sample of the ashes is included, typically only about 5 grams. The remainder of the ashes can be buried conventionally in the earth or in the sea.
The second factor greatly influencing the cost includes the target location of the payload. Most burials do not actually leave the gravitational field of the earth but only achieve an orbit around earth. The capsules containing the samples of the remains circle the earth, until the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere have slowed down the capsules, and they reenter the atmosphere. The capsules burn up upon reentry similar to a shooting star, and the ashes are scattered in the atmosphere. The time between launch and reentry depends on the orbit of the satellite, and can vary widely. The first burial reentered after only 5 years, but other burials are not expected to reenter in less than 250 years.
There are a number of alternative options if a reentry into the earth atmosphere is not desired. All of them are more complex and expensive than a burial in earth orbit. If an object leaves the gravitational field of the earth, it enters the gravitational field of another body in space. The closest object near the earth for that purpose is the moon. Although the moon is technically also in the gravitational field of the earth, it will not hit the earth within any human timeframe. A service is available for space burial on the moon. As of 2005, the only person buried this way is Dr. Eugene Shoemaker, best known for co-discovering the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.
The practice of space burials began at the end of the 20th century as the technical difficulties and costs involved in launching an object into space previously made it unfeasible. The first space burial Earthview 01: The Founders Flight was launched on April 21, 1997. An aircraft carried a modified Pegasus rocket containing samples of the remains of 24 people to an altitude of 38,000 ft above the Canary Islands. Famous people buried on this flight were Gene Roddenberry and Timothy Leary.
The second space burial was the burial of a sample of the remains of Dr. Eugene Shoemaker on the moon by the Lunar Prospector probe, launched on January 7, 1999 by a three-stage Athena rocket. The probe containing scientific instruments and the ashes of Dr. Shoemaker impacted the moon near the lunar south pole on 4:52 a.m. Central Daylight Time, July 31, 1999.
Currently, only one company, Space Services Inc., offers space burials. Space Services took over the assets of Celestis, Inc., which launched four flights from 1997 to 2001. As science progresses it is expected that the cost and difficulties of space burials will be reduced, and other companies may enter the market.