New Horizons to be first at dwarf planet Pluto
Since our nights are still awash with summer twilight, we may be excused if our attention this month turns to Pluto as it is visited by a spacecraft for the first time.
Pluto was still regarded as a the solar system’s ninth planet when NASA’s New Horizons mission launched in 2006, but it was officially reclassified as a dwarf planet later that year. We now recognise it as one of several icy worlds, and not even the largest, in the Kuiper Belt of such objects beyond the orbit of Neptune.
Pluto is 2,368 km wide and has a system of five moons, two of them only discovered while New Horizons has been en route. The largest moon, Charon, is 1,207 km across and, like Pluto itself, will block the probe’s signal briefly as New Horizons zooms through the system at a relative speed of almost 14 km per second on the 14th. The closest approach to Pluto is due at 12:50 BST at a range of some 12,500 km from Pluto and 4,772 million km from the Earth. It will not hang around, though, since this is a flyby mission and the probe will speed onwards, perhaps to encounter another still-to-be-identified Kuiper Belt world before the end of this decade.
A conjunction of an altogether different type is gracing our western evening sky as July begins. The two most conspicuous planets have been converging over recent weeks and stand at their closest on the 1st when the brilliant Venus passes within 21 arcminutes, or two-thirds of a Moon’s breadth, of Jupiter.
On that evening, Venus is just below and left of Jupiter and sinks from 14° high in the west at sunset to set in the west-north-west about 100 minutes later. Shining at magnitude -4.4 from a distance of 76 million km, Venus appears 33 arcseconds in diameter and 33% illuminated, its dazzling crescent visible through a small telescope or even binoculars. Jupiter, 911 million km away on that evening, is 32 arcseconds wide but only one eleventh as bright at magnitude -1.8.
Over the coming days, Venus slips to the left with respect to Jupiter as both planets drop lower into the twilight. By July 15, Venus is only 7° high at sunset and sets within the hour, while Jupiter is 5° to its right and slightly higher, but unlikely to be seen without binoculars and a clear horizon. By then, too, Venus has closed to 61 million km and its crescent is taller but narrower, 41 arcseconds and 22% sunlit.
It is perhaps surprising that the Earth reaches aphelion, the farthest point from the Sun in its annual orbit, on the 6th. We are then 152,093,481 km from the Sun, 4,997,277 km further away than we were at perihelion on January 4.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 04:31/22:01 BST on the 1st to 05:14/21:23 on the 31st. The Sun tracks 5° southwards during July to bring the return of nautical darkness for Edinburgh from the night July 11/12. By the last night of the month this official measure of darkness lasts for almost four hours.
The Moon is full on the 2nd, at last quarter on the 8th, new on the 16th, at first quarter on the 24th and full again on the 31st – there is a notion, sadly mistaken, that a second full moon in a month should be termed a “blue moon”.
The white star Vega climbs from high in the east at nightfall to dominate our high southern sky at the star map times. It stands at a distance of 25 light years, being the third brightest star ever seen in Scotland’s night sky after Sirius, which is currently out of sight, and Arcturus in Bootes which stands low in the west by the map times.
Vega is twice as massive as our Sun and 40 times more luminous but only one tenth as old. It has an extensive disk of dusty material, although observations hinting that this contained a planet appear not to be supported my more recent studies.
Vega is the leader of the small box-shaped constellation of Lyra the Lyre, representing a small harp from classical times. It is also the brightest star in the Summer Triangle that includes Deneb in Cygnus, high in the east at the map times, and Altair in Aquila, in the middle of our south-east. Far to the south of Vega is the so-called Teapot in Sagittarius which seems to be pouring to the right as it sits on Scotland’s southern horizon. We have much clearer views of this region of sky, rich in stars and star clusters, if we view them higher above the horizon under darker skies further south.
The red supergiant Antares in Scorpius glowers to the right of the Teapot and lies 13° below-left of Saturn which is twice as bright at magnitude 0.3 to 0.4. Indeed, after the Moon, it is the brightest object low down in the south at nightfall, moving to the south-west by our map times and setting less than two hours later. Currently creeping westwards in eastern Libra, it shows an 18 arcseconds disk through a telescope, set within glorious rings that stretch across 41 arcseconds and have their north face inclined towards us at 24°. Catch the Moon to the right of Saturn on the 25th and to its left a day later.
Of the other planets, Mars has yet to emerge from the Sun’s glare while Mercury hides low in our bright morning twilight as it moves towards superior conjunction on the Sun’s far side on the 23rd.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on June 30th 2015, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Mars shines brightly at opposition in Virgo
Six years have passed since Mars was as close and bright as it is this month, but two other planets outshine it and a fourth, Saturn, will soon be at its best for the year. There are also two of 2014’s four eclipses but, as with the second pair in October, neither is of much interest for observers in Scotland.
For the moment, our evening sky retains a flavour of stellar feast we enjoyed over the winter. Orion is still on show in the south-west at nightfall below the conspicuous planet Jupiter. Orion’s Belt now lies almost parallel to the horizon, a line along it pointing to the left towards Sirius, our brightest nighttime star, and to the right towards Aldebaran and the Pleiades in Taurus. By our star map times, though, Orion has all but sunk below our western horizon.
Jupiter, however, continues as our brightest evening object bar the Moon. As it slips 3.5° or seven Moon-widths eastwards in the middle of Gemini during April, it fades a little between magnitude -2.2 and -2.0 and its telescopic diameter shrinks from 38 to 35 arcseconds. The earlier in the night that we catch it, the higher it stands and the sharper the view of its cloud-banded disk. By our map times Jupiter is some 30° high in the west and on its way to setting in the north-west four hours later.
The month begins with impressive views of the young earthlit Moon in the west at nightfall. It is only 5% illuminated on the 1st as it stands 14° high forty minutes after sunset. Look for it below the Pleiades on the 2nd, below the Aldebaran-Pleiades line on the 3rd and 6° below Jupiter on the 6th as it nears first quarter.
Mars reaches opposition on the 8th when it lies 93 million km away and shines at magnitude -1.5 so that its orange-red beacon rivals Sirius in brightness if not in colour. By definition, it stands opposite the Sun in the sky so that we find it climbing from the eastern horizon as the evening twilight fades to pass 28° high on Edinburgh’s meridian two hours after our map times. As the arrow on our south map shows, Mars tracks 10° westwards in Virgo during April, from 5° above the magnitude 1.0 Spica today to lie 1.6° below-left of the famous binary star Porrima as the month ends.
Often the day of opposition is when a planet is closest to us but Mars is approaching the Sun in its orbit and is 450,000 km closer to us on the 14th than on the 8th. Through a telescope, its ochre disk is 15 arcseconds wide and shows dusky markings and the dwindling white smudge of its north polar ice cap, tipped about 22° towards us.
The full Moon lies below Mars on the evening of the 14th and is approaching Spica as it sets for Edinburgh at 06:08 BST on the 15th. Only 14 minutes before this, and while it is less than 2° above the west-south-western horizon in the twilight, it begins to enter the outer shadow of the Earth, the penumbra. Sadly, we have no hope of seeing any dimming of the lunar disk before it sets. Observers in the Americas are much better placed to view the resulting total eclipse of the Moon which is total from 08:07 until 09:26 BST (03:07 to 04:25 EDT).
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 06:44/19:51 BST on the 1st to 05:32/20:50 on the 30th while the duration of nautical twilight at dawn and dusk stretches from 84 to 105 minutes. After first quarter on the 7th, the Moon is full during the eclipse on the 15th, at last quarter on the 22nd and new on the 29th when a small area of Antarctica and perhaps a few penguins experience an annular eclipse of the Sun. A partial solar eclipse is visible from Australia and the southern Indian Ocean.
On course to reach opposition in May, Saturn rises at Edinburgh’s east-south-eastern horizon at 23:31 on the 1st and only 36 minutes after sunset by the 30th, climbing to pass 18° high on the meridian four hours after our map times. Improving from magnitude 0.3 to 0.1, it edges westwards in Libra and draws ever closer to the Moon overnight on the 16th-17th when Saturn’s disk is 18 arcseconds wide while its stunning rings span 42 arcseconds.
Mercury is hidden in the dawn twilight until it passes around the Sun’s far side on the 26th. Venus, brilliant as a morning star, rises in the east-south-east seventy minutes before sunrise on the 1st and in the east only 51 minutes before the Sun on the 30th. Dimming from magnitude -4.3 to -4.1, its gibbous disk shrinks from 22 to 17 arcseconds in diameter.
It is less than a month since results from NASA’s WISE spacecraft appeared to rule out any Jupiter or Saturn-sized planet lurking unseen in the outermost solar system. Now we learn that a new dwarf planet, dubbed 2012 VP113, has been found to have an orbit that comes no closer to the Sun than 80 times the Earth’s distance, further than any other known object in the solar system. Thought to be a ball of rock and ice perhaps 450 km wide, it may be six times further away at its farthest, and take perhaps 5,000 years to complete each orbit.
Surprisingly, 2012 VP113’s orbit is similarly orientated to those of some other remote bodies, including the only other comparable object, Sedna. There is speculation that this is because they are influenced by a larger undiscovered world, perhaps a super-Earth, even further out.