Thanks, Comet Pluto. Solar System Nomenclature Needs A Major Rethink

New Horizon's July 2015 flyby of Pluto captured this iconic image of the heart-shaped region called Tombaugh Regio. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

Pluto can’t seem to catch a break lately. After being reclassified in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union, it seemed that what had been the 9th planet of the Solar System was now relegated to the status of “dwarf planet” with the likes of Ceres, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake. Then came the recent announcements that the title of “Planet 9” may belong to an object ten times the mass of Earth located 700 AU from our Sun.

And now, new research has been produced that indicates that Pluto may need to be reclassified again. Using data provided by the New Horizons mission, researchers have shown that Pluto’s interaction with the Sun’s solar wind is unlike anything observed in the Solar System thus far. As a result, it would seem that the debate over how to classify Pluto, and indeed all astronomical bodies, is not yet over.

Continue reading “Thanks, Comet Pluto. Solar System Nomenclature Needs A Major Rethink”

Here’s Your Chance To Fund A Universe Today Project On The Pluto Planethood Debate

New Horizons
Artist's impression of the New Horizons spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA

This fall, Universe Today plans to get in-depth into the Pluto planethood debate. I (Elizabeth Howell) just launched a crowdfunding project on a new platform called Beacon that will allow me to fly down to Washington, D.C. for several days to interview Pluto scientists.

Should the project be funded, a few fun things are going to happen. Here, Universe Today readers will get a series of articles into the Pluto planethood debate. We’ll examine the controversial International Astronomical Union vote and why certain scientists still don’t believe Pluto is a dwarf planet today.

The question has special relevance today because NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is on a journey to Pluto, and is less than a year from getting there. Examining Pluto will give scientists a window into how the solar system formed, which in turn gives us clues as to how the Earth came to be. We’ll have some stuff about the science as well; stay tuned for the details!

You’ll also get the chance to support astronomy education and outreach. I’m pleased to announce that CosmoQuest will be a partner on the project, receiving 15% of all proceeds for the project. If you contribute $250, $500 or $1,000, they will receive an additional 15% of your money. Contributors at this level will have their name mentioned in at least two of a series of six podcasts I will do for CosmoQuest’s 365 Days of Astronomy. There are other fun perks, too, so check out the Beacon page for more.


As a freelance journalist, my challenge with doing travel stories is I have to pay my own way. Beacon solves that problem. It will allow me to spend a few days in person with scientists, gathering pictures and videos and podcasts, instead of relying on the phone interviews I usually conduct.

After paying contributions to CosmoQuest and to Beacon, every single cent remaining will be for travel expenses only. The money will give me a flight to Washington, D.C., a few nights in a reasonable hotel, and a car rental. I promise you that I’m extremely frugal — ask my mortgage broker — and I will spend every dollar of your contributions wisely. Additional money after $2,400 will allow me to draw a salary for the days I am there. If a substantial amount of extra money is raised, I’ll consider a second trip to D.C.

A NASA "poster" marking the one year to Pluto encounter by New Horizons. Credit: NASA
A NASA “poster” marking the one year to Pluto encounter by New Horizons. Credit: NASA

I’m not one to brag about my experience, but I will say that I’ve been proudly writing about space for a decade for many publications (including Universe Today). I’m one of the few journalists in Canada to focus on space virtually full-time. And I have covered some fun stories, such as three shuttle launches (2009-10), Chris Hadfield’s last mission (2012-13) and participating in a simulated Mars mission in Utah (early 2014). I see space as a field where I can always learn more, and this will be a great chance to share what I learn about Pluto with you.

Any questions? Feel free to get in touch with me at contact AT elizabethhowell DOT ca or to leave comments below. I likely won’t be able to respond until tomorrow as this launch coincidentally falls on a planned vacation day for me, but I promise that for the rest of the campaign I’ll answer your queries as fast as I can.

Searching for Pluto: A Guide to the 2013 Opposition Season

Pluto & Charon as you'll never see them... imaged by Hubble in 1994. (Credit: NASA/ESA/ESO).

So you’ve seen all of the classic naked eye planets. Maybe you’ve even seen fleet-footed Mercury as it reached greatest elongation earlier this month. And perhaps you’ve hunted down dim Uranus and Neptune with a telescope as they wandered about the stars…

But have you ever seen Pluto?

Regardless of whether or not you think it’s a planet, now is a good time to try. With this past weekend’s perigee Full Moon sliding out of the evening picture, we’re reaching that “dark of the Moon” two week plus stretch where it’s once again possible to go after faint targets.

This year, Pluto reaches opposition on July 1st, 2013 in the constellation Sagittarius. This means that as the Sun sets, Pluto will be rising opposite to it in sky, and transit the meridian around local midnight.

But finding it won’t be easy. Pluto currently shines at magnitude +14, 1,600 times fainter than what can be seen by the naked eye under favorable sky conditions.  Compounding the situation is Pluto’s relatively low declination for northern hemisphere observers.  You’ll need a telescope, good seeing, dark skies and patience to nab this challenging object.

Wide Field
Pluto in Sagittarius; a wide field field of view with 10 degree finder circle. The orbital path of Pluto and the ecliptic is also noted. The red inset box is the field of view below. All graphics created by the author using Starry Night.

Don’t expect Pluto to look like much. Like asteroids and quasars, part of the thrill of spotting such a dim speck lies in knowing what you’re seeing. Currently located just over 31 Astronomical Units (AUs) distant, tiny Pluto takes over 246 years to orbit the Sun. In fact, it has yet to do so once since its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh from the Lowell observatory in 1930. Pluto was located in the constellation Gemini near the Eskimo nebula (NGC 2392) during its discovery.

And not all oppositions are created equal. Pluto has a relatively eccentric orbit, with a perihelion of 29.7 AUs and an aphelion of 48.9 AUs. It reached perihelion on September 5th, 1989 and is now beginning its long march back out of the solar system, reaching aphelion on February  19th, 2114.

Medium field
A medium field finder for Pluto with a five degree field of view. The current direction of New Horizons is noted. The yellow inset box is the field of view below.

Pluto last reached aphelion on June 4th, 1866, and won’t approach perihelion again until the far off date of September 15th, 2237.

This means that Pluto is getting fainter as seen from Earth on each successive opposition.  Pluto reaches magnitude +13.7 when opposition occurs near perihelion, and fades to +15.9 (over 6 times fainter) when near aphelion. It’s strange to think that had Pluto been near aphelion during the past century rather than the other way around, it may well have eluded detection!

This all means that a telescope will be necessary in your quest, and the more powerful the better. Pluto was just in range of a 6-inch aperture instrument about 2 decades ago. In 2013, we’d recommend at least an 8-inch scope and preferably larger to catch it. Pluto was an easy grab for us tracking it with the Flandrau Science Center’s 16-inch reflector back in 2006.

Small field
A one degree field of view, showing the path of Pluto from June 23rd of this year until December 2nd. Stars are labeled down to 7th magnitude, unlabeled stars are depicted down to 10th magnitude.

Pluto is also currently crossing a very challenging star field.  With an inclination of 17.2° relative to the ecliptic, Pluto crosses the ecliptic in 2018 for the first time since its discovery in 1930. Pluto won’t cross north of the ecliptic again until 2179.

Pluto also crossed the celestial equator into southern declinations in 1989 and won’t head north again til 2107.

But the primary difficulty in spotting +14th magnitude Pluto lies in its current location towards the center of our galaxy. Pluto just crossed the galactic plane in early 2010 into a very star-rich region. Pluto has passed through some interesting star fields, including transiting the M25 star cluster in 2012 and across the dark nebula Barnard 92 in 2010.

Narrow field
A one degree narrow field of view, showing the path of Pluto from June 24th to August 6th. Stars are depicted down to 14th magnitude.

This year finds Pluto approaching the +6.7 magnitude star SAO 187108 (HIP91527). Next year, it will pass close to an even brighter star in the general region, +5.2 magnitude 29 Sagittarii.  Mid-July also sees it passing very near the +10.9 magnitude globular cluster Palomar 8 (see above). This is another fine guidepost to aid in your quest.

So, how do you pluck a 14th magnitude object from a rich star field? Very carefully… and by noting the positions of stars at high power on successive nights. A telescope equipped with digital setting circles, a sturdy mount and pin-point tracking will help immeasurably. Pluto is currently located at:

Right Ascension: 18 Hours 44′ 30.1″

Declination: -19° 47′ 31″

Heavens-Above maintains a great updated table of planetary positions. It’s interesting to note that while Pluto’s planet-hood is hotly debated, few almanacs have removed it from their monthly planetary summary roundups!

You can draw the field, or photograph it on successive evenings and watch for Pluto’s motion against the background stars.  It’s even possible to make an animation of its movement!

Pluto will once again reach conjunction on the far side of the Sun on January 1st 2014. Interestingly, 2013 is a rare year missing a “Plutonian-solar conjunction.” This happens roughly every quarter millennium, and last occurred in 1767. This is because conjunctions and oppositions of Pluto creep along our Gregorian calendar by about a one-to-two days per year.

An Earthly ambassador also lies in the general direction of Pluto. New Horizons, launched in 2006  is just one degree to the lower left of 29 Sagittarii. Though you won’t see it through even the most powerful of telescopes, it’s fun to note its position as it closes in on Pluto for its July 2015 flyby.

Let us know your tales of triumph and tragedy as you go after this challenging object. Can you image it? See it through the scope? How small an instrument can you still catch it in? Seeing Pluto with your own eyes definitely puts you in a select club of visual observers…

Still not enough of a challenge?  Did you know that amateurs have actually managed to nab Pluto’s faint +16.8th magnitude moon Charon? Discovered in 35 years ago this month in 1978, this surely ranks as an ultimate challenge. In fact, discoverer James Christy proposed the name Charon for the moon on June 24th, 1978, as a tribute to his wife Charlene, whose nickname is “Char.”  Since it’s discovery, the ranks of Plutonian moons have swollen to 5, including Nix, Hydra and two as of yet unnamed moons.

Be sure to join the hunt for Pluto this coming month. Its an uncharted corner of the solar system that we’re going to get a peek at in just over two years!