It’s been a fantastic year for Pluto, and it’s only going to get more so. What better time to make your first (or second!) attempt at spotting the dwarf planet? Read on for a few tips to help you locate this dim object in the summer sky.
This is an exciting year for Pluto. If you’re like us, you’re waiting anxiously for the data return from the New Horizons flyby on July 14th. We already know that Pluto’s moons are, well, perplexing. But what does Pluto itself look like? We can’t wait to see!
In the meantime, how about feting our favorite (dwarf) planet by embracing an observing challenge? At a dim magnitude 14, Pluto is a tough target, but one hit by many amateur astronomers over the years. If you’d like to try your luck and skill, you’ll need a few things to help you. For instance: 8 inches of aperture (a 10- or 12-inch scope would be even better); dark skies; and a clear view of the southern horizon (Pluto won’t be more than 27° high at transit for those of us at mid-northern latitudes). You’ll also need patience and good star charts. We can’t help you cultivate the former, but we can definitely lend you a hand with the latter.
Pluto will spend the rest of 2015 circling the Teaspoon of Sagittarius. In early summer, it travels west above the rim, coming to opposition on July 6th. After its July 14th encounter with New Horizons, it slides between ξ1 and ξ2 Sagittarii. While the relatively bright stars make for easier star hopping, the glare they produce will make your search more difficult; try to time your observations when it is most distance from ξ1 and ξ2 Sgr. On November 17th, Pluto will pass less than 1° north of ξ2 Sgr, on its way to conjunction with the Sun on January 5, 2016.
Whether you call it a planet, dwarf planet, minor planet, or Kuiper Belt object — or all of the above — Pluto is exceptional. It's the most distant piece of our solar system that can be viewed by an amateur through a telescope from the (dark) backyard. And we’re about to see the best photographs of it produced since its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1929. That’s an exceptional object, having an exceptional year.
A larger version of the color chart published here can be found in the Celestial Calendar in the July 2015 issue of Sky & Telescope (page 52).
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