New Reasons why Pluto Should be Considered a Planet After All

In 2006, during their 26th General Assembly, the International Astronomic Union (IAU) passed a resolution to adopt a formal definition for the term “planet”. According to this definition, bodies that orbit the Sun, are spherical, do not orbit other bodies, and have cleared their orbits were designated planets. Pluto, and other such bodies that did not meet all of these requirements, would thereafter be designated as “dwarf planets”.

However, according to a new study led by Philip T. Metzger – a planetary scientists from the Florida Space Institute (at the University of Central Florida) – the IAU’s standard for classifying planets is not supported by the research literature on Pluto, and is therefore invalid. For those people who have maintained that “Pluto is still planet” for the past twelve years, this is certainly good news!

Continue reading “New Reasons why Pluto Should be Considered a Planet After All”

What is the Smallest Planet in the Solar System?

The Solar Planets are a nice mixed bag of what is possible when it comes to planetary formation. Within the inner Solar System, you have the terrestrial planets – bodies that are composed primarily of silicate minerals and metals. And in the outer Solar System, you have the gas giants and bodies that are composed primarily of ice that lie just beyond in the Trans-Neptunian region.

Of these, the question of which planet is the smallest has been the subject of some controversy. Until recently, the smallest planet was considered to be Pluto. But with the 2006 IAU Resolution that put constraints on what the definition of a planet entails, that status has since passed to Mercury. So in addition to being the closest planet to the Sun, Mercury is also the smallest.

Size and Mass:

With a mean radius of 2440 km, Mercury is the smallest planet in our Solar System, equivalent in size to 0.38 Earths. And given that it has its experiences no flattening at the poles – like Venus, which means it is an almost perfectly spherical body – its radius is the same at the poles as it is the equator.

And while it is smaller than the largest natural satellites in our Solar System – such as Ganymede and Titan – it is more massive. At 3.3011×1023 kg in mass (33 trillion trillion metric tons; 36.3 trillion trillion US tons), it is equivalent to 0.055 Earths in terms of mass.

Mercury and Earth, size comparison. Credit: NASA / APL (from MESSENGER)

Density, Volume:

On top of that, Mercury is significantly more dense than bodies its size. In fact, Mercury’s density (at 5.427 g/cm3) is the second highest in the Solar System, only slightly less than Earth’s (5.515 g/cm3). The result of this is a gravitational force of 3.7 m/s2, which is 0.38 times that of Earth (0.38 g). In essence, this means that if you could stand on the surface of Mercury, you would weight 38% as much as you do on Earth.

In terms of volume, Mercury once again becomes a bit diminutive, at least by Earth standards. Basically, Mercury has a volume of 6.083×1010 km³ (60 billion cubic km; 14.39 trillion cubic miles) which works out to 0.056 times the volume of the Earth. In other words, you could fit Mercury inside Earth almost twenty times over.

Structure and Composition:

Like Earth, Venus and Mars, Mercury is a terrestrial planet, meaning that is primarily composed of silicate minerals and metals that are differentiated between a metallic core and a silicate mantle and crust. But in Mercury’s case, the core is oversized compared to the other terrestrial planets, measuring some 1,800 km (approx. 1,118.5 mi) in radius, and therefore occupying 42% of the planet’s volume (compared to Earth’s 17%).

Internal structure of Mercury: 1. Crust: 100–300 km thick 2. Mantle: 600 km thick 3. Core: 1,800 km radius. Credit: MASA/JPL

Another interesting feature about Mercury’s core is the fact that it has a higher iron content than that of any other major planet in the Solar System. Several theories have been proposed to explain this, the most widely-accepted being that Mercury was once a larger planet that was struck by a planetesimal that stripped away much of the original crust and mantle, leaving behind the core as a major component.

Beyond the core is a mantle that measures 500 – 700 km (310 – 435 mi) in thickness and is composed primarily of silicate material. The outermost layer is Mercury’s crust, which is composed of silicate material that is believed to be 100 – 300 km thick.

Yes, Mercury is a pretty small customer when compared to its brothers, sisters and distant cousins in the Solar System. However, it is also one of the densest, hottest and most irradiated. So while small, no one would ever accuse this planet of not being really tough!

We have written many interesting articles on Mercury and the Solar Planets here at Universe Today. Here’s What is the Biggest Planet in the Solar System?, What is the Second Largest Planet in the Solar System?, How Does Mercury Compare to Earth?, What is the Average Surface Temperature on Mercury?, How Long is a Day on Mercury?, and The Orbit of Mercury, How Long is a Year on Mercury?,

And here’s another take on the smallest planet in the Solar System, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide.

We have recorded a whole series of podcasts about the Solar System at Astronomy Cast.

Sources:

Sad About Pluto? How about 110 Planets in the Solar System Instead?

In 2006, during their 26th General Assembly, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) adopted a formal definition of the term “planet”. This was done in the hopes of dispelling ambiguity over which bodies should be designated as “planets”, an issue that had plagued astronomers ever since they discovered objects beyond the orbit of Neptune that were comparable in size to Pluto.

Needless to say, the definition they adopted resulted in fair degree of controversy from the astronomical community. For this reason, a team of planetary scientists – which includes famed “Pluto defender” Alan Stern – have come together to propose a new meaning for the term “planet”. Based on their geophysical definition, the term would apply to over 100 bodies in the Solar System, including the Moon itself.

The current IAU definition (known as Resolution 5A) states that a planet is defined based on the following criteria:

“(1) A “planet” is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

(2) A “dwarf planet” is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape , (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite.

(3) All other objects , except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as “Small Solar-System Bodies”

Results of a study combining Kepler observations with Herschel data show that 2007 OR10 is the largest unnamed dwarf planet in our Solar System, and the third largest overall. Illustration: Konkoly Observatory/András Pál, Hungarian Astronomical Association/Iván Éder, NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The dwarf planets of the Solar System, arranged according to size. Credit: Konkoly Observatory/András Pál, Hungarian Astronomical Association/Iván Éder, NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Because of these qualifiers, Pluto was no longer considered a planet, and became known alternately as a “dwarf planet”, Plutiod, Plutino, Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO), or Kuiper Belt Object (KBO). In addition, bodies like Ceres, and newly discovered TNOs like Eris, Haumea, Makemake and the like, were also designated as “dwarf planets”. Naturally, this definition did not sit right with some, not the least of which are planetary geologists.

Led by Kirby Runyon – a final year PhD student from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University – this team includes scientists from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado; the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tuscon, Arizona; the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona; and the Department of Physics and Astronomy at George Mason University.

Their study – titled “A Geophysical Planet Definition“, which was recently made available on the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) website – addresses what the team sees as a need for a new definition that takes into account a planet’s geophysical properties. In other words, they believe a planet should be so-designated based on its intrinsic properties, rather than its orbital or extrinsic properties.

From this more basic set of parameters, Runyon and his colleagues have suggested the following definition:

“A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has sufficient self-gravitation to assume a spheroidal shape adequately described by a triaxial ellipsoid regardless of its orbital parameters.”

The most iconic image from the New Horizon’s July 2015 flyby, showing Pluto’s ‘heart.’ Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

As Runyon told Universe Today in a phone interview, this definition is an attempt to establish something that is useful for all those involved in the study of planetary science, which has always included geologists:

“The IAU definition is useful to planetary astronomers concerned with the orbital properties of bodies in the Solar System, and may capture the essence of what a ‘planet’ is to them. The definition is not useful to planetary geologists. I study landscapes and how landscapes evolve. It also kind of irked me that the IAU took upon itself to define something that geologists use too.

“The way our brain has evolved, we make sense of the universe by classifying things. Nature exists in a continuum, not in discrete boxes. Nevertheless, we as humans need to classify things in order to bring order out of chaos. Having a definition of the word planet that expresses what we think a planet ought to be, is concordant with this desire to bring order out of chaos and understand the universe.”

The new definition also attempts to tackle many of the more sticky aspects of the definition adopted by the IAU. For example, it addresses the issue of whether or not a body orbits the Sun – which does apply to those found orbiting other stars (i.e. exoplanets). In addition, in accordance with this definition, rogue planets that have been ejected from their solar systems are technically not planets as well.

And then there’s the troublesome issue of “neighborhood clearance”. As has been emphasized by many who reject the IAU’s definition, planets like Earth do not satisfy this qualification since new small bodies are constantly injected into planet-crossing orbits – i..e Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). On top of that, this proposed definition seeks to resolve what is arguably one of the most regrettable aspects of the IAU’s 2006 resolution.

Artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

“The largest motivation for me personally is: every time I talk about this to the general public, the very next thing people talk about is ‘Pluto is not a planet anymore’,” said Runyon. “People’s interest in a body seems tied to whether or not it has the name ‘planet’ labelled on it. I want to set straight in the mind of the public what a planet is. The IAU definition doesn’t jive with my intuition and I find it doesn’t jive with other people‘s intuition.”

The study was prepared for the upcoming 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. This annual conference – which will be taking place this year from March 20th-24th at the Universities Space Research Association in Houston, Texas – will involve specialists from all over the worlds coming together to share the latest research findings in planetary science.

Here, Runyon and his colleagues hope to present it as part of the Education and Public Engagement Event. It is his hope that through an oversized poster, which is a common education tool at Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, they can show how this new definition will facilitate the study of the Solar System’s many bodies in a way that is more intuitive and inclusive.

“We have chosen to post this in a section of the conference dedicated to education,” he said. “Specifically, I want to influence elementary school teachers, grades K-6, on the definitions that they can teach their students. This is not the first time someone has proposed a definition other than the one proposed by the IAU. But few people have talked about education. They talk among their peers and little progress is made. I wanted to post this in a section to reach teachers.”

In accordance with the definition proposed by Runyon, bodies like Ceres and even the moon would be considered “planets”. Credit: NASA/ JPL/Planetary Society/Justin Cowart

Naturally, there are those who would raise concerns about how this definition could lead to too many planets. If intrinsic property of hydrostatic equilibrium is the only real qualifier, then large bodies like Ganymede, Europa, and the Moon would also be considered planets. Given that this definition would result in a Solar System with 110 “planets”, one has to wonder if perhaps it is too inclusive. However, Runyon is not concerned by these numbers.

“Fifty states is a lot to memorize, 88 constellations is a lot to memorize,” he said. “How many stars are in the sky? Why do we need a memorable number? How does that play into the definition? If you understand the periodic table to be organized based on the number of protons, you don’t need to memorize all the atomic elements. There’s no logic to the IAU definition when they throw around the argument that there are too many planets in the Solar System.”

Since its publication, Runyon has also been asked many times if he intends to submit this proposal to the IAU for official sanction. To this, Runyon has replied simply:

“No. Because the assumption there is that the IAU has a corner on the market on what a definition is. We in the planetary science field don’t need the IAU definition. The definition of words is based partly on how they are used. If [the geophysical definition] is the definition that people use and what teachers teach, it will become the de facto definition, regardless of how the IAU votes in Prague.”

Regardless of where people fall on the IAU’s definition of planet (or the one proposed by Runyon and his colleagues) it is clear that the debate is far from over. Prior to 2006, there was no working definition of the term planet; and new astronomical bodies are being discovered all the time that put our notions of what constitutes a planet to the test.  In the end, it is the process of discovery which drives classification schemes, and not the other way around.

Further Reading: USRA

Image Source: Planetary Society

The Dwarf Planet Pluto

Pluto was re-classified as a dwarf planet based on our growing understanding of its nature. Will Schlaufman's new study help us more accurately classify gas giants and brown dwarfs? NASA's New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

After being officially discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, Pluto spent close to a century being thought of as the ninth planet of our Solar System. In 2006, it was reclassified as a “dwarf planet” due to the discovery of other Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) of comparable size. However, that does not change its significance in our galaxy. In addition to being the largest TNO, it is the largest and second-most massive dwarf planet of our Solar System.

As a result, a great deal of time and study has been devoted to this former planet. And with the successful flyby of the New Horizons mission this month, we finally have a clear picture of what it looks like. As scientists pour over the voluminous amounts of data being sent back, our understanding of this world at the edge of our Solar System has grown by leaps and bounds.

Discovery:

The existence of Pluto was predicted before it was observed. In the 1840s, French mathematician Ubrain Le Verrier used Newtonian mechanics to predict the position of Neptune (which had not yet been discovered) based on the perturbation of Uranus. By the late 19th century, subsequent observations of Neptune led astronomers to believe that a planet was perturbing its orbit as well.

In 1906, Percival Lowell – an American mathematician and astronomer who founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1894 – initiated a project to locate “Planet X”, the possible ninth planet of the Solar System. Unfortunately, Lowell died in 1916 before a confirmed discovery was made. But unbeknownst to him, his surveys had captured two faint images of Pluto (March 19th and April 7th, 1915), which were not recognized for what they were.

The discovery photographs of Pluto, dated January 23rd and 29th , 1930. Credit: Lowell Observatory Archives
The discovery photographs of Pluto, dated January 23rd and 29th , 1930. Credit: Lowell Observatory Archives

After Lowell’s death, the search did not resume until 1929, at which point the director of the Lowell Observatory (Vesto Melvin Slipher) entrusted the job of locating Planet X to Clyde Tombaugh. A 23 year-old astronomer from Kansas, Tombaugh spent the next year photographing sections of the night sky and then analyzing the photographs to determine if any objects had shifted position.

On February 18th, 1930, Tombaugh discovered a possible moving object on photographic plates taken in January of that year. After the observatory obtained further photographs to confirm the existence of the object, news of the discovery was telegraphed to the Harvard College Observatory on March 13th, 1930. The mysterious Planet X had finally been discovered.

Naming:

After the discovery was announced, the Lowell Observatory was flooded with suggestions for names. The name Pluto, based on the Roman god of the underworld, was proposed by Venetia Burney (1918–2009), a then eleven-year-old schoolgirl in Oxford, England. She suggested it in a conversation with her grandfather who passed the name on to astronomy professor Herbert Hall Turner, who cabled it to colleagues in the United States.

Pluto's surface as viewed from the Hubble Space Telescope in several pictures taken in 2002 and 2003. Though the telescope is a powerful tool, the dwarf planet is so small that it is difficult to resolve its surface. Astronomers noted a bright spot (180 degrees) with an unusual abundance of carbon monoxide frost. Credit: NASA
Pluto’s surface as viewed from the Hubble Space Telescope in several pictures taken in 2002 and 2003. Credit: NASA/Hubble

The object was officially named on March 24th, 1930, and it came down to a vote between three possibilities – Minerva, Cronus, and Pluto. Every member of the Lowell Observatory voted for Pluto, and the name was announced on May 1st, 1930. The choice was based on part on the fact that the first two letters of Pluto – P and L – corresponded to the initials of Percival Lowell.

The name quickly caught on with the general public. In 1930, Walt Disney was apparently inspired by it when he introduced a canine companion for Mickey Mouse named Pluto. In 1941, Glenn T. Seaborg named the newly created element plutonium after Pluto. This was in keeping with the tradition of naming elements after newly discovered planets – such as uranium, which was named after Uranus; and neptunium, which was named after Neptune.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a mass of 1.305±0.007 x 1o²² kg – which is the equivalent of 0.00218 Earths and 0.178 Moons – Pluto is the second most-massive dwarf planet and the tenth-most-massive known object directly orbiting the Sun. It has a surface area of 1.765×107 km, and a volume of 6.97×109 km3.

Map of Pluto, with (informal) names for some of the largest surface features. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL
Map of Pluto’s surface features, with (informal) names for some of the largest surface features. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

Pluto has a moderately eccentric and inclined orbit, which ranges from 29.657 AU (4.4 billion km) at perihelion to 48.871 AU (7.3 billion km) at aphelion. This means that Pluto periodically comes closer to the Sun than Neptune, but a stable orbital resonance with Neptune prevents them from colliding.

Pluto has an orbital period of 247.68 Earth years, meaning it takes almost 250 years to complete a single orbit of the Sun. Meanwhile, its rotation period (a single day) is equal to 6.39 Earth days. Like Uranus, Pluto rotates on its side, with an axial tilt of 120° relative to its orbital plane, which results in extreme seasonal variations. At its solstices, one-fourth of its surface is in continuous daylight, whereas another fourth is in continuous darkness.

Composition and Atmosphere:

With a mean density of 1.87 g/cm3, Pluto’s composition is differentiated between an icy mantle and a rocky core. The surface is composed of more than 98% nitrogen ice, with traces of methane and carbon monoxide. The surface is very varied, with large differences in both brightness and color. A  notable feature is a large, pale area nicknamed the “Heart”.

The Theoretical structure of Pluto, consisting of 1. Frozen nitrogen 2. Water ice 3. Rock. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings
The theoretical structure of Pluto, consisting of 1. Frozen nitrogen 2. Water ice 3. Rock. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings

Scientists also suspect that Pluto’s internal structure is differentiated, with the rocky material having settled into a dense core surrounded by a mantle of water ice. The diameter of the core is believed to be approximately 1700 km, 70% of Pluto’s diameter. Thanks to the decay of radioactive elements, it is possible that Pluto contains a subsurface ocean layer that is 100 to 180 km thick at the core–mantle boundary.

Pluto has a thin atmosphere consisting of nitrogen (N2), methane (CH4), and carbon monoxide (CO), which are in equilibrium with their ices on Pluto’s surface. However, the planet is so cold that during part of its orbit, the atmosphere congeals and falls to the surface. The average surface temperature is 44 K (-229 °C), ranging from 33 K (-240 °C) at aphelion to 55 K (-218 °C) at perihelion.

Satellites:

Pluto has five known satellites. The largest, and closest in orbit to Pluto, is Charon. This moon was first identified in 1978 by astronomer James Christy using photographic plates from the United States Naval Observatory (USNO) in Washington, D.C. Beyond Charon lies the four other circumbinary moons – Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra, respectively.

Nix and Hydra were discovered simultaneously in 2005 by the Pluto Companion Search Team using the Hubble Space Telescope. The same team discovered Kerberos in 2011. The fifth and final satellite, Styx, was discovered by the New Horizons spacecraft in 2012 while capturing images of Pluto and Charon.

Artist's concept comparing the scale and brightness of the moons of Pluto. Credit: NASA/ESA/M. Showalter
Artist’s concept comparing the scale and brightness of the moons of Pluto. Credit: NASA/ESA/M. Showalter

Charon, Styx and Kerberos are all massive enough to have collapsed into a spheroid shape under their own gravity. Nix and Hydra, meanwhile, are oblong in shape. The Pluto-Charon system is unusual, since it is one of the few systems in the Solar System whose barycenter lies above the primary’s surface. In short, Pluto and Charon orbit each other, causing some scientists to claim that it is a “double-dwarf system” instead of a dwarf planet and an orbiting moon.

In addition, it is unusual in that each body is tidally locked to the other. Charon and Pluto always present the same face to each other; and from any position on either body, the other is always at the same position in the sky, or always obscured. This also means that the rotation period of each is equal to the time it takes the entire system to rotate around its common center of gravity.

In 2007, observations by the Gemini Observatory of patches of ammonia hydrates and water crystals on the surface of Charon suggested the presence of active cryo-geysers. This would seem indicate that Pluto does have a subsurface ocean that is warm in temperature, and that the core is geologically active. Pluto’s moons are believed to have been formed by a collision between Pluto and a similar-sized body early in the history of the Solar System. The collision released material that consolidated into the moons around Pluto.

Classification:

From 1992 onward, many bodies were discovered orbiting in the same area as Pluto, showing that Pluto is part of a population of objects called the Kuiper Belt. This placed its official status as a planet in question, with many asking whether Pluto should be considered separately or as part of its surrounding population – much as Ceres, Pallas, Juno and Vesta, which lost their planet status after the discovery of the Asteroid Belt.

On July 29h, 2005, the discovery of a new Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO), Eris, was announced, which was thought to be substantially larger than Pluto. Initially referred to the as the Solar System’s “tenth planet”, there was no consensus on whether or not Eris constituted the planet. What’s more, others in the astronomic community considered its discovery the strongest argument for reclassifying Pluto as a minor planet.

The debate came to a head on August 24th, 2006 with an IAU resolution that created an official definition for the term “planet”. According to the XXVI General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union, a planet must meet three criteria: it needs to be in orbit around the Sun, it needs to have enough gravity to pull itself into a spherical shape, and it needs to have cleared its orbit of other objects.

Pluto fails to meet the third condition, because its mass is only 0.07 times that of the mass of the other objects in its orbit. The IAU further decided that bodies that do not meet criterion 3 would be called dwarf planets. On September 13th, 2006, the IAU included Pluto, and Eris and its moon Dysnomia, in their Minor Planet Catalog.

The IAUs decision was met with mixed reactions, especially from within the scientific community. For instance, Alan Stern, the principal investigator with NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, and Marc W. Buie – an astronomer with the Lowell Observatory – have both openly voiced dissatisfaction with the reclassification. Others, such as Mike Brown – the astronomer who discovered Eris – have voiced their support.

Our evolving understanding of Pluto, represented by images taken by Hubble in 2002-3 (left), and images taken by New Horizons in 2015 (right). Credit: theguardian.com
Our evolving understanding of Pluto, represented by images taken by Hubble in 2002-3 (left), and images taken by New Horizons in 2015 (right). Credit: theguardian.com

On August 14th – 16th, 2008, in what came to be known as “The Great Planet Debate“, researchers on both sides of the issue gathered at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Unfortunately, no scientific consensus was reached; but on June 11th 2008, the IAU announced in a press release that the term “plutoid” would henceforth be used to refer to Pluto and other similar objects.

Exploration:

Pluto presents significant challenges for spacecraft because of its small mass and great distance from Earth. In 1980, NASA began to contemplate sending the Voyager 1 spacecraft on a flyby of Pluto. However, the controllers opted instead for a close flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan, resulting in a trajectory incompatible with a Pluto flyby.

Voyager 2 never had a plausible trajectory for reaching Pluto, but it’s flyby Neptune and Triton in 1989 led scientists to once again begin contemplating a mission that would take a spacecraft to Pluto for the sake of studying the Kuiper Belt and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs). This led to the formation of the Pluto Kuiper Express mission proposal, and NASA instructing the JPL to being planning for a Pluto, Kuiper Belt flyby.

By 2000, the program had been scrapped due to apparent budget concerns. After much pressure had been brought to bear by the scientific community, a revised mission to Pluto, dubbed New Horizons, was finally granted funding from the US government in 2003. New Horizons was launched successfully on January 19th, 2006.

From September 21st-24th, 2006, New Horizons managed to capture its first images of Pluto while testing the LORRI instruments. These images, which were taken from a distance of approximately 4,200,000,000 km (2.6×109 mi) or 28.07 AU and released on November 28th, confirmed the spacecraft’s ability to track distant targets.

Distant-encounter operations at Pluto began on January 4th, 2015. Between January 25th to 31st, the approaching probe took several images of Pluto, which were released by NASA on February 12th. These photos, which were taken at a distance of more than 203,000,000 km (126,000,000 mi) showed Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.

Pluto
Pluto and Charon, captured by the New Horizons spacecraft from January 25th to 31st. Credit: NASA

The New Horizons spacecraft made its closest approach to Pluto at 07:49:57 EDT (11:49:57 UTC) on July 14th, 2015, and then Charon at 08:03:50 EDT (12:03:50 UTC). Telemetries confirming a successful flyby and the health of the spacecraft reached Earth on 20:52:37 EDT (00:52:37 UTC).

During the flyby, the probe captured the clearest pictures of Pluto to date, and full analyses of the data obtained is expected to take years to process. The spacecraft is currently traveling at a speed of 14.52 km/s (9.02 mi/s) relative to the Sun and at 13.77 km/s (8.56 mi/s) relative to Pluto.

Though the New Horizons mission has shown us much about Pluto – and will continue to do so as scientists pour over all the data collected by the probe’s instruments – we still have much to learn about this distant and mysterious world. In time, and with more missions to the outer Solar System, we may eventually be able to unlock some of its deeper mysteries.

Artist's impression of the New Horizons spacecraft in orbit around Pluto (Charon is seen in the background). Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s impression of the New Horizons spacecraft in orbit around Pluto (Charon is seen in the background). Credit: NASA/JPL

Until then, we offer all information that is currently available on Pluto. We hope that you find what you are looking for in the links below and, as always, enjoy your research!

Characteristics of Pluto:

Movement and Location of Pluto:

Moons of Pluto:

History of Pluto:

Features of Pluto:

Other Pluto Articles:

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!