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!

See Pluto for Yourself Ahead of New Horizons’ Historic Encounter

Are you ready for July? The big ticket space event of the year is coming right up, as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is set to make its historic flyby targeting a pass 12,500 kilometres (7,750 miles) from the surface of Pluto at 11:50 UT on July 14th. Already, Pluto and its moons are growing sharper by the day, as New Horizons closes in on Pluto at over 14 kilometres per second.

And the good news is, this flyby of the distant world occurs just eight days after Pluto reaches opposition for 2015, marking a prime season to track down the distant world with a telescope.

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The path of Pluto through 2015. Image credit: Starry Night Education Software

Pluto and its large moon Charon are snapping into focus as we reach the two week out mark. Discovered in 1930 by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh while working at the Lowell observatory in Flagstaff Arizona, these far off worlds are about to become real places in the public imagination. It’s going to be an exciting—if tense—few weeks, as new details and features are seen on these brave new worlds, all calling out for names. Are there undiscovered moons? Does Pluto host a ring system? What is the history of Pluto?

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A wide field view of Sagittarius and Pluto with inset (see chart above) Image credit: Starry Night education software

Hunting for Pluto with a backyard telescope is difficult, though not impossible. We suggest an aperture of 10-inches or greater, though the tiny world has been reliably spotted using a 6-inch reflector. Pluto reaches opposition on July 6th at 10:00 UT/6:00 AM EDT, marking a period when it will rise opposite to the setting Sun and transit highest near local midnight. Pluto spends all of 2015 in the constellation Sagittarius. This presents two difficulties: 1). We’re currently looking at Pluto against the very star-rich backdrop towards the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, and 2). Its southerly declination means that it won’t really ‘clear the weeds’ much for northern hemisphere observers.

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The path of Pluto through July 2015. Image credit: Starry Night Education software

But don’t despair. With a good finder chart and patience, you too can cross Pluto off of your life list. In fact, the month of July sees Pluto thread its way between the 27’ wide  +4th magnitude pair Xi Sagittarii, making a great guidepost to spot the 14th magnitude world.

Don’t own a telescope? You can still wave in the general direction of New Horizons and Pluto on the evening of July 1st, using the nearby Full Moon as a guide:

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Pluto near the Full Moon on the night of July 1st. Image credit: Stellarium

Pluto orbits the Sun once every 248 years, and reaches opposition every 367 days. A testament to this slow motion is the fact that Mr. Tombaugh first spied Pluto south of the star Delta Gemini, and it has only moved as far as Sagittarius in the intervening 85 years. Pluto also passed perihelion in 1989, when it was about half a magnitude brighter than it currently is now. Pluto’s distance from the Sun varies from 30 AU to 49 AU, and Pluto will reach aphelion just under a century from now on 2114.

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Pluto versus Charon at greatest elongation. Image credit: Starry Night Education software

Up for a challenge? Hunting down Pluto’s elusive moon Charon is an ultimate feat of astronomical athletics. Amazingly, this has actually been done before, as reported here in 2008 on Universe Today.

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Pluto… and Charon! Image credit: Antonello Medugno and Daniele Gasparri

Charon reaches greatest elongation 0.8” from Pluto once every three days. Shining at +16th magnitude,  Charon is a faint catch, though not impossible. We’re already seeing supporting evidence from early New Horizons images that these two worlds stand in stark contrast, with dark Charon covered in relatively low albedo dirty water-ice and while brighter Pluto is coated with reflective methane snow.

Credit: Ed Kotapish
Greatest elongation times and dates for Charon through the month of July 2015. Credit: Ed Kotapish

The current forward-looking view from New Horizons of Pluto is amazing to consider. As of July 1st, the spacecraft is 0.11 AU (17 million kilometres) from Pluto and closing, and the world appears as a +1.7 magnitude object about 30 arc seconds across.  The views of Pluto are courtesy of New Horizons’ LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager), which in many ways is very similar to a familiar backyard 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. It’s interesting to note that the views we’re currently getting very closely resemble amateur views of Mars near opposition, though we suspect that will change radically in about a week.

And it will take months for all of the New Horizons data to make its way back to Earth. The real nail-biter will be the 20 hour period of close rendezvous on July 14th, a period in which the spacecraft will have to acquire Pluto and Charon, do its swift ballet act, and carry out key observations—all on its own before phoning home. This will very likely be the only mission to Pluto in our lifetimes, as New Horizons will head out to rendezvous with several Kuiper Belt Objects in the 2020 time frame before joining the Voyager I & II and Pioneer 10 & 11 spacecraft in an orbit around the Milky Way Galaxy.

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Pluto (marked) from the morning of June 25th, 2015. Image credit and copyright: Jim Hendrickson

Just think, in less than a few weeks time, science writers will (at last!) have a wealth of Plutonian imagery to choose from courtesy of New Horizons, and not just a few blurry pics and artist’s conceptions that we’ve recycled for decades… let us know of your tales of tribulation and triumph as you attempt to hunt down Pluto this summer!

How to See Pluto at Opposition as New Horizons Crosses the One Year Out Mark

Are you ready for 2015? On July 14th, 2015 — just a little over a year from now — NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft with perform its historic flyby of Pluto and its retinue of moons. Flying just 10,000 kilometres from the surface of Pluto — just 2.5% the distance from Earth to the Moon on closest approach — New Horizons is expected to revolutionize our understanding of these distant worlds.

And whether you see Pluto as a much maligned planetary member of the solar system, an archetypal Plutoid, or the “King of the Kuiper Belt,” you can spy this denizen of the outer solar system using a decent sized backyard telescope and a little patience.

New Horizon in the clean room having its plutonium-fueled MMRTG installed. (Credit: NASA).
New Horizons in the clean room having its plutonium-fueled MMRTG installed. (Credit: NASA).

Pluto reaches opposition for 2014 later this week on Friday, July 4th at 3:00 Universal Time (UT), or 11:00 PM EDT on July 3rd. This means that Pluto will rise to the east as the Sun sits opposite to it in the west at sunset and transits the local meridian high to the south at local midnight. This is typically the point of closest approach to Earth for any outer solar system object and the time it is brightest.

Dusk July 4th Credit
The location of Pluto at dusk on July 4th, the night of opposition. Credit: Stellarium.

But even under the best of circumstances, finding Pluto isn’t easy. Pluto never shows a resolvable disk in even the largest backyard telescope, and instead, always appears like a tiny star-like point. When opposition occurs near perihelion — as it last did in 1989 — Pluto can reach a maximum “brilliancy” of magnitude +13.6. However, Pluto has an extremely elliptical orbit ranging from 30 to 49 Astronomical Units (A.U.s) from the Sun. In 2014, Pluto has dropped below +14th magnitude at opposition as it heads back out towards aphelion one century from now in 2114.

Pluto from July-Dec
The path of Pluto from July to December 2014. Created using Starry Night Education Software.

Another factor that makes finding Pluto challenging this decade is the fact that it’s crossing through the star-rich plane of the galaxy in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius until 2023. A good finder chart and accurate pointing is essential to identifying Pluto as it moves 1’ 30” a day against the starry background from one night to the next.

In fact, scouring this star-cluttered field is just one of the challenges faced by the New Horizons team as they hunt for a potential target for the spacecraft post-Pluto encounter. But this has also meant that Pluto has crossed some pretty photogenic regions of the sky, traversing dark Bok globules and skirting near star clusters.

Pluto (marked) imaged by Jim Hendrickson on the morning of June 29th.
Pluto (marked) imaged by Jim Hendrickson @SkyscraperJim on the morning of June 28th.

You can use this fact to your advantage, as nearby bright stars make great “guideposts” to aid in your Pluto-quest. Pluto passes less than 30” from the +7th magnitude pair BB Sagittarii on July 7th and 8th and less than 3’ from the +5.2 magnitude star 25 Sagittarii on July 21st… this could also make for an interesting animation sequence.

Though Pluto has been reliably spotted in telescopes as small as 6” in diameter, you’ll most likely need a scope 10” or larger to spot it. We’ve managed to catch Pluto from the Flandrau observatory situated in downtown Tucson using its venerable 14” reflector.

June 28th-August 8th (inverted)
The path of Pluto June 28th-August 8th. (click here for an inverted white background view). Created using Starry Night Education Software.

Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh from the Lowell Observatory in 1930 while it was crossing the constellation Gemini. It’s sobering to think that it has only worked its way over to Sagittarius in the intervening 84 years. It was also relatively high in the northern hemisphere sky and headed towards perihelion decades later during discovery. 2014 finds Pluto at a southern declination of around -20 degrees, favoring the southern hemisphere. Had circumstances been reversed, or Pluto had been near aphelion, it could have easily escaped detection in the 20th century.

We’re also fortunate that Pluto is currently relatively close to the ecliptic plane, crossing it on October 24th, 2018. Its orbit is inclined 17 degrees relative to the ecliptic and had it been high above or below the plane of the solar system, sending a spacecraft to it in 2015 might have been out of the question due to fuel constraints.

The current location of New Horizons. (Credit: NASA/JPL).
The current location of New Horizons. (Credit: NASA/JPL).

And speaking of spacecraft, New Horizons now sits less than one degree from Pluto as seen from our Earthly vantage point. And although you won’t be able to spy this Earthly ambassador with a telescope, you can wave in its general direction on July 11th and 12th, using the nearby waxing gibbous Moon as a guide:

The Moon, Pluto and New Horizons as seen on July 11th. (Created Using Starry Night Education Software).
The Moon, Pluto and New Horizons as seen on July 11th. (Created Using Starry Night Education Software).

All eyes will be on Pluto and New Horizons in the coming year, as it heads towards a date with destiny… and we’ll bet that the “is Pluto a planet?” debate will rear its head once more as we get a good look at these far-flung worlds.

And hey, if nothing else, us science writers will at last have some decent pics of Pluto to illustrate articles with, as opposed to the same half-dozen blurry images and artist’s renditions…

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!