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  Night Sky

Enjoy the starry night skies
Be a considerate neighbor. Reduce nighttime glare.
Shield your outside lights downward.
Let the stars light up the night.

July 2015 night sky

—Charlie Christmann

Pluto in sight:
A once-in-a-lifetime (at least 250 year) opportunity is here—NASA has Pluto in its sights. This on-again, off-again planet orbits in the far reaches of our solar system, mostly within the inner regions of the Kuiper belt. The Kuiper belt is a disk-shaped area of our solar system outside the orbit of Neptune containing icy fragments left over from the formation of the planets. Many comets originate from this frozen realm. Astronomers now believe the Kuiper belt may hold hundreds of planet-like members similar to Pluto.

Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory is credited with identifying a “moving star” in photographs made on January 23 and January 29 of 1930. After taking additional photos to validate the find, Pluto’s existence was announced on March 13, 1930. Looking back, Pluto was also seen in several earlier images taken by various observatories but never recognized. The earliest of the fifteen known pre-discoveries was in August of 1909.

From its discovery until 2006, Pluto was afforded full planet status, however, several objects similar to Pluto, further out in the Kuiper belt were discovered, prompting Pluto’s demotion to dwarf planet status. Other siblings of Pluto include Eris, just slightly larger than Pluto and almost twice as far as Pluto from the sun, Haumea and Makemake are all Kuiper objects. Ceres is a Plutonian cousin dwarf planet located in the main asteroid belt. NASA currently has the Dawn spacecraft in orbit around Ceres.
Pluto’s orbit takes 247.68 Earth years. But its orbit is not like that of any of the other planets in our solar system. Pluto travels a high-inclined elliptical orbit, taking it well above and below the plane of the other planets. It travels as far as 4.5 billion miles from the sun and as close as 2.75 billion miles, putting Pluto closer to the sun than Neptune for twenty years. In fact, Pluto was inside Neptune’s orbit from February 7, 1979 to February 11, 1999, giving us a chance to send a probe to this mysterious icy world and its five known moons.

NASA launched the New Horizons mission to Pluto in January 2006. The craft makes its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015 at a distance of just under eight thousand miles. New Horizons is breaking records for the fastest object launched from Earth, now traveling at more than thirty thousand miles per hour relative to the sun. At that speed, the spacecraft is destined to be an interstellar traveler like its Voyager spacecraft predecessors. From Pluto, New Horizon’s radio signals take more than four and a half hours to reach home.
After Pluto, NASA hopes to identify other Kuiper objects along New Horizon’s path. If any are found, the spacecraft can make course changes, depending on available fuel levels, to take a look. In 2011, the Hubble telescope found three possible targets that could be reached by 2018 or 2019. Much beyond that, New Horizon’s radio signal will become too faint to be received as its electrical generator loses power.
If you want to try and find New Horizons and Pluto, train your telescopes above Sagittarius near the 3.5 magnitude star Xi2 Sagittarii, five degrees above the teapot. Then locate the optical double star BB Sagittarii, magnitudes 6.5 and 7.3 with your telescope. Pluto can be found to the right of these two stars. Don’t expect to see much, even the Hubble telescope has trouble seeing much more than a speck of light. On July 6, Pluto rises in our night sky as the sun sets in a position known as opposition. You will need at least a ten-inch telescope to see Pluto; it is currently very dim at 14th magnitude. You will also need to get away from as much light pollution as possible.

As New Horizons whizzes past Pluto, Check out NASA TV to watch the event unfold ( and on various satellite and cable TV systems). Tentatively, NASA has published the following schedule of events (times converted to MDT):

  • July 7-12: 9:30 a.m. Final approach to Pluto
  • July 13: 9:00–10:00 a.m. Media briefing: mission status and what to expect
  • July 14: 5:30 a.m. Media briefing: arrival at Pluto, inside the Pluto system and New Horizons’ perilous path

6:00-7:15 p.m. Phone home, broadcast from APL Mission Control
7:15-8:00 p.m. Media briefing: New Horizons’ Health and Mission Status

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