Peering for Pluto: Our Guide to Opposition 2016

What an age we live in. This summer marks the very first opposition of Pluto since New Horizons’ historic flyby of the distant world in July 2015. If you were like us, you sat transfixed during the crucial flyby phase, the climax of a decade long mission. We now live in an era where Pluto and its massive moon Charon are a known worlds, something that even Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh never got to see.

Pluto in 2016

And this summer, with a little skill and patience and a good-sized telescope, you can see Pluto for yourself. Opposition 2016 sees the remote world looping through the star-rich fields of eastern Sagittarius. Hovering around declination 21 degrees south, +14.1 magnitude Pluto is higher in the June skies for observers in the southern hemisphere than the northern, but don’t let that stop you from trying. Opposition occurs on July 7th, when Pluto rises opposite from the setting Sun and rides across the meridian at 29 degrees above the southern horizon for observers based along 40 degrees north latitude at local midnight.

The general realm of Pluto in 2016. Image credit: Starry Night Education Software.
The general realm of Pluto in 2016. Image credit: Starry Night Education Software.

Pluto actually crossed the plane of the galactic equator in 2009, and won’t cross the celestial equator northward until 2109. Fun fact: astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto as it drifted through the constellation Gemini in 1930. Here we are 86 years later, and Pluto has only moved six zodiacal constellations along the ecliptic eastward in its 248 year orbit around the Sun.

A close up look at the path of Pluto for the remainder of 2016.
A close up look at the path of Pluto for the remainder of 2016. Note the position of New Horizons and KBO 2014 MU69 at the end of the year thrown in as well. Image credit: Starry Night Pro 7.

And Pluto is getting tougher to catch in a backyard scope, as well. The reason: Pluto passed perihelion or its closest point to the Sun in 1989 inside the orbit of Neptune, and it’s now headed out to aphelion about a century from now in 2114. Pluto is in a fairly eccentric orbit, ranging from 29.7 astronomical units (AU) to 49.4 AU from the Sun. This also means that Pluto near opposition can range from a favorable magnitude +13.7 near perihelion, to three magnitudes (16 times) fainter near aphelion hovering around magnitude +16.3. Clyde was lucky, in a way. Had Pluto been near aphelion in the 20th century rather than headed towards perihelion, it might have waited much longer for discovery.

2016 sees Pluto shining at +14.1, one magnitude (2.5 times) above the usual quoted mean. See Mars over in the constellation Libra shining at magnitude -1.5? It’s 100^3 (a 5-fold change in magnitude is equal to a factor of 100 in brightness), or over a million times brighter than Pluto.

The inner and outermost planet(?) Mercury meets Pluto earlier this year in January. Image credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad (@Shahgazer).
The inner and outermost planet(?) Mercury meets Pluto earlier this year in January. Image credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad (@Shahgazer).

You often see Pluto quoted as visible in a telescope aperture of ‘six inches or larger,’ but for the coming decade, we feel this should be amended to 8 inches and up. We once nabbed Pluto during public viewing using the 14” reflector at the Flandrau observatory.

And how about Pluto’s large moon, Charon? Shining at an even fainter +16th magnitude, Charon never strays more than 0.9” from Pluto… still, diligent amateurs have indeed caught the elusive moon… as did Wendy Clark just last year.

Pluto: imaged last year during New Horizons' historic encounter. Image credit and copyright: Wendy Clark
Pluto: imaged last year during New Horizons’ historic encounter. Image credit and copyright: Wendy Clark.

Lacking a telescope? Hey, so are we, as we trek through Morocco this summer… never fear, you can still wave in the general direction of Pluto and New Horizons on the evening of June 21st, one day after the northward solstice and the Full Moon, which passes three degrees north of Pluto.

The location of Pluto in relation to the rising Full Moon on the night of June 21st. Image credit: Stellarium.
The location of Pluto in relation to the rising Full Moon on the night of June 21st. Image credit: Stellarium.

And follow that spacecraft, as New Horizons is set to make a close pass by Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69 in January 2019 on New Year’s Day.

A key date to make your quest for Pluto is June 26th, when Pluto sits just 3′ minutes to the south of the +2.9 magnitude star Pi Sagittarii (Albaldah), making a great guidepost.

Does the region of Sagittarius near Pi Sagittarii sound familiar? That’s because the Wow! Signal emanated from a nearby region of the sky on August 15th, 1977. Pluto will cross the border into the constellation Capricornus in 2024.

After opposition, Pluto heads into the evening sky, towards solar conjunction on January 7th, 2017.

Observing Pluto requires patience, dark skies, and a good star chart plotted down to about +15th magnitude. One key problem: many star charts don’t go down this faint. We use Starry Night Pro 7, which includes online access to the USNO catalog and a database of 500 million stars down to magnitude +21, more than enough for most backyard scopes.

Don’t miss a chance to see Pluto for yourself this summer!

Searching for Pluto: A Guide to the 2013 Opposition Season

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!