If you keep an eye on the night sky you may have noticed two bright “stars” to the south just around midnight. (To be precise: Jupiter is dead south at 11:02 pm; Saturn is dead south at 11:37 pm. By midnight they’ve moved slightly to the west.)
If you’re the type to keep an eye on the night sky, you likely already know those “stars” are Saturn (on the left) and Jupiter (on the right). What you may not know — and certainly can’t see — is that almost right smack dab between them is the former planet Pluto. All three just happen to be lined up nicely right now.
The New Horizons spacecraft is also out there, well beyond Pluto.
You may not care about invisible demoted dwarf Pluto (or our fleeing spacecraft), but Saturn and Jupiter are very easy to spot. Jupiter is especially bright (it’s a bit closer).
Here’s a slightly wider view to help you spot them:
This is the southern night sky at midnight tonight (“zero-hundred hours” on August 14). Note the view is just slightly to the right (west) of dead south.
If you recall from my Summer Solstice post from this past June, at that time, looking south at midnight on Earth looks directly into the heart of the Milky Way galaxy. In the image above, you can see a bit of the galaxy to the right. The galactic center is in the lower right very close to M7.
(For the record, the coordinates of Sagittarius A* (the black hole in the center of the galaxy) are: 17h 45m 40.0409s Right Ascension and 29° 00’ 28.118” Declination.)
The horizon is set for my location at 45° north latitude. The stars will be higher in the sky if you’re south of that, lower if you’re north.
Here’s a closer view to give you a better sense of where Pluto is:
Almost exactly halfway between them.
The New Horizons spacecraft is off to the right — probably just off the right edge of the image directly above. In the wider image above that it’s to the right and up a bit, close to that bright star.
Here’s an image from a (really good) NASA Solar System interactive viewer that should help to locate it more precisely:
Here’s a view from up “above” (north from Earth) the Solar System:
The plants (and Pluto) all orbit in a counter-clockwise direction seen from this view. Neptune and Uranus are off to the left beyond Mars.
You can see Mars off in the east to your left (while looking at Jupiter and Saturn). It’s that ruddy bright “star” — Uranus is just on the east horizon, and Neptune is roughly halfway between Mars and Saturn.
Venus is behind the Earth at midnight, but it’s visible in the west as a morning star. The viewing is especially good right now because Venus is, from our point of view, far from the Sun.
One of them is similar to the “above the Solar System” image I just showed:
This image (which includes Uranus and Neptune) shows how New Horizons is to the right of the three planets. Excuse me, two planets and Pluto. (You might need to mentally rotate the Solar System 180° to put N.H. to the right.)
Right now it takes light (or radio signals) just over six-and-a-half hours to go from Earth to the spacecraft or from it to us. But at only 48 AU from the Sun, the little robot has barely left the neighborhood. While it is approaching the end of the Kuiper belt, Voyager 2 is 124 AU from the Sun, and Voyager 1 is 150 AU out.
None of them are anywhere near the Oort cloud yet.
The first time I saw Saturn through a telescope was a profound experience for me. Light from the Sun had gone all the way out to Saturn, bounced nearly all the way back, and had entered my eye. Mind blowing!
So much different from a picture:
Seeing that with my own eyes was one of the more memorable memories.
That said, the pictures we’ve gotten from the Cassini-Huygens Mission (RIP) are wonderful, and we learned so much from that mission.
One thing is that the rings are kind of temporary; they won’t last forever. They’ll only be around for another 100 million years or so. If you were planning to visit, better make reservations while you can.
It’s a pity about the Huygens lander, though.
Ah well, so it goes. Space is hard.
Jupiter, likewise, is amazing. I’ve never seen it through a telescope, but I’ve heard that one can see its moons even with a good pair of binoculars.
Galileo saw them way back in 1610, and they were the first evidence we had of bodies orbiting other bodies.
The Juno spacecraft is currently exploring Jupiter. It has returned some amazing images, too:
Kinda cool that we have these beautiful gas giants in the outer system (one with a gorgeous set of rings). Those massive bodies protect Earth from bombardment from the outer part of the system.
On the other hand, Pluto has a giant dog:
Just one more reason it should have been grandfathered in as a planet! 😀
Above I mentioned a NASA website, an interactive Solar System that’s really excellent. Double-click planets, dwarf planets, moons, or spacecraft, to jump to that point of view. (Dismiss the popup info panel by clicking elsewhere.)
You can also get a control for changing the date and time if you click the date in just the right place. (I haven’t figured out how to reset it to the current date and time other than by refreshing the page.)
Seriously, if you like astronomy at all, you want to check out that website.
Keep your eyes on the skies! Happy “star” gazing!
Stay safe, my friends! Wear your masks — COVID-19 is airborne!