Saturday, July 25, 2015


On the evening of July 14, 2015 I took a picture of Pluto to celebrate the flyby of Pluto by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. But, there was a problem: I couldn't find it!

Pluto is very small, and also very dim. It is typically around 14th magnitude, which is about 128 times dimmer than the human eye can see in Earth's darkest skies. It's not even visible in most amateur scopes, outside of using long-exposure photography. In addition, the part of the sky that Pluto is currently located in is along part of the Milky Way. How was I to locate such a small, dim object among all of those stars?

Plan A was to use my various planetarium programs to find reference stars that would aid in locating Pluto. That failed because none of them had enough stars in their databases to account for everything I was seeing. I made an educated guess (which I discovered was correct), but there was no way to tell for sure until I could implement Plan B.

Plan B was to use a technique similar to that used by Pluto's discoverer, Clyde W. Tombaugh. Tombaugh worked for the Lowell Observatory in the 1920s and 1930s. He would select a part of the sky and take a picture of it with the observatory's 13-inch astrograph (a telescope designed for photography). A few nights later he'd take another picture of the same area. He then used a blink comparator to look for differences between the photographs. Objects that stayed in the same position were stars, but anything that moved was a comet, asteroid, or a planet.

I took my second set of images on the night of July 24, 2015. After processing and lining up the images I was able to see that my suspect Pluto was, in fact, the real thing! The animated GIF below shows Pluto's position on the two nights:

Pluto! Click on the image for a larger view.
To further illustrate how inconspicuous Pluto is, I put together this movie from the July 14th image:

So, there you have it. A mundane little dot moving among a sea of other dots. Who knew what a beautiful little world Pluto would turn out to be?

Public domain image courtesy of NASA and Wikimedia Commons.

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