April 21, 2019

New Horizons Set to Buzz the Pluto System

Pluto and Charon… in color!

(Credit: NASA/JPL)

(Editor’s Note: This week’s event was hatched as part of our “legacy post project” in October 2009, entitled “12 Very Special Events for the 21st Century.” They’re a time capsule of sorts, meant to carry on the Astroguyz legacy!)

One of the last outposts of the solar system is about to become known. 3463 days after launch, the New Horizons spacecraft is set to whiz by the Pluto-Charon system at a blazing 14 kilometers a second. Launched in 2006, flyby will occur on July 14th 2015. Not coincidentally, opposition for Pluto will occur this year on July 6th . With the New Moon occurring at July 8th, now is a good time to spot the elusive world, and just perhaps, its moon.Pluto’s position is Right Ascension 19 hours, 0 minutes and 52 seconds, Declination -20 degrees 42′ 28” in the constellation Sagittarius. But to ratchet things up a bit, I give you a challenge few have ever done; imaging its 16th magnitude Moon, Charon! Although not an impossible feat, expect to require an aperture of 14” or larger to be successful. Charon orbits once every 6.4 days, so images over successive nights should catch it at greatest elongation, if at all. Speaking of which, that maximum separation should be about 0.9”! Good luck!

New Horizons path through the Pluto system on July 14th. Image credit: NASA/JPL

This weeks astro-term is Kuiper Belt Object. Or do you say Plutoid? Also sometimes abbreviated as “KBO”, these are trans-Neptunian objects in our outer solar system in a very loose belt-like area spanning from 30 to 55 astronomical units out. First proposed in the late 1980s, the Kuiper Belt is now thought to host in access of 70,000 objects of a size 100km or greater. Eris, Quaoar, and Make-make are all denizens of this far flung region and there is some thought that Pluto should be crowned as “the King of the Kuiper Belt.” Sometimes also termed as the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt, several objects also show an orbital resonance with Neptune, Pluto non-with standing at 2:3. Will New Horizons encounter any KBO’s for further study? Quite possibly; after all, its a a BIG outer solar system out there!

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  1. [...] 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 [...]

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