Find The Brightest And Nearest Of The Dwarf Planets

With all the news this past week about Pluto, most skywatchers arent aware that Ceres, the brightest and nearest of the dwarf planets, will be coming into opposition to the sun on Saturday morning, July 25.

An object is said to be in opposition when it is directly opposite the sun in Earths sky. When an object is in opposition, it rises at sunset, is visible all night, and then sets at sunrise.

When Ceres was discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi on the first day of the 19th century, January 1, 1801, it was initially thought to be a planet. Other objects were soon discovered in the gap between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, so a new name was proposed for these tiny bodies, asteroids. This was because of their resemblance to stars in the telescopes of the day.

When the International Astronomical Union proposed a new category, dwarf planet, in 2006, Ceres was included, along with Pluto, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake. So tiny Ceres has been called three different things in the 214 years since it was discovered: planet, asteroid, and now dwarf planet.

Despite its recent designation as a dwarf planet, Ceres is still considered to be an asteroid by most astronomers. As such, it is the largest of the asteroids at 592 miles (952 km) in diameter, almost twice the diameter and four times the mass of the next largest asteroids, Pallas and Vesta. On the other hand, it is far smaller than any of the other designated dwarf planets. It is also smaller than fifteen of the moons in the solar system, including Earths moon.

This year, Ceres reaches opposition just on the Sagittarius side of the border between Sagittarius and the little-known constellation Microscopium. It is most easily found by looking within the triangle formed three 4th magnitude stars: 62 Sagittarii, the easternmost star in Sagittarius, Omega Capricorni, the southernmost star in Capricornus, and Gamma Microscopii, the brightest star in the dim constellation Microscopium, the Microscope.

On Saturday morning, July 25, the dwarf planet Ceres will be in opposition to the sun on the border between Sagittarius and Microscopium. Credit: Starry Night software.

Because of its faintness, magnitude 7.5 at opposition, detailed charts are needed to distinguish Ceres from the stars its passing in front of. Our chart shows its position on the morning of opposition, Saturday, July 25. If you try to find it on any other night, you will need to plot its position with a program like Starry Night or SkySafari.

A detailed chart for locating 7th magnitude Ceres on July 25. Credit: Starry Night software.

As seen in even the largest telescopes on Earth, Ceres appears as a point of light, no different than the background stars. The only way to be sure you have seen it is to plot its position and then try to observe the same area on another night.

On March 6 this year, the Dawn spacecraft entered orbit around Ceres, and has since been returning detailed images of Ceres surface. Thus, 2015 marks a special year for the exploration of the solar system, with Dawn orbiting Ceres and New Horizons flying close to Pluto.

The Next Pluto Mission: Part II

Continued from Part I ...


All spacecraft are limited by Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation, named after Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the 19th century Russian founding father of astronautics.  Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation determines the speed a rocket can attain, based on the rocket’s exhaust velocity, the “dry mass” of the rocket (without fuel), and the amount of fuel it carries.  Here’s the essential take-away: for your rocket to go faster than the exhaust from its burning fuel, it needs to carry a lot more fuel.  You need exponentially more fuel the faster you want it to go.  And this is also true in reverse: if you are already going very fast, your rocket will need exponentially more fuel to slow down.

Here’s the math:

DV = Ve * ln ( (Md + Mp) / Md )

DV = Delta-V, total velocity change produced by rocket after all fuel is exhausted
Ve = Exhaust velocity
Md = Dry mass of rocket
Mp = Mass of propellant (fuel) carried by rocket

New Horizons has a dry mass of 400 kilograms, and carries about 78 kilograms of hydrazine fuel.  That fuel has an exhaust velocity of about 2.2 km/sec.  Plugging those numbers in, that means New Horizons’ rocket motors can change its speed by at most 390 meters per second.  New Horizons is moving past Pluto at 14 kilometers per second.  So this is not nearly enough to slow down and achieve orbit around Pluto.  To shed 14 km/sec, New Horizons would need to burn 580 times its own weight - or 232 metric tons - of hydrazine fuel.

A more efficient fuel, like the liquid hydrogen and oxygen in the Centaur upper stage, has an exhaust velocity around 4.4 km/sec.  That improves things quite a bit, but New Horizons would still have to carry 24 times its dry weight in fuel to slow down from 14 km/sec.  For comparison, the Centaur upper stage which boosted New Horizons toward Pluto has a dry mass of 2.2 tons, and carried 20.8 tons of fuel.  Its maximum theoretical delta-V is 10.2 km/sec.  In other words, the fully fueled Centaur booster, carrying no space probe at all, could not slow itself down enough to enter Pluto orbit.  Some even larger rocket would have to be built to slow the Pluto orbiter into orbit around Pluto.

And don’t forget - that Pluto orbiter and its 50+ tons of fuel would still have to be launched from Earth, on an escape trajectory toward Pluto, in the first place.  The Atlas V that launched New Horizons couldn’t possibly do this.  The largest rocket under construction - NASA’s Space Launch System - can deliver a maximum payload of 7 tons to Jupiter.  That is hopelessly insufficient to deliver a Pluto probe with 50 tons of fuel to Pluto.


Instead of making a larger rocket, how about making a smaller payload?  During the early 2000s, while New Horizon was in its early design phases, a (literally) small revolution was taking place in satellite design.  The first CubeSats packed all the essential elements of an functioning satellite into a 10x10x10 cm cube weighing less than 1 kilogram, and were launched in 2003.  To date, hundreds of CubeSats have been launched, and are becoming increasingly capable as technology advances.  On the first SLS launch, scheduled for late 2018, NASA plans to deploy three CubeSats from the SLS upper stage as it passes the Moon, to see how well they’ll perform at interplanetary exploration tasks.  (By the way: want to win $5 million?  You can compete for the chance to launch your own lunar CubeSat on the maiden SLS launch.  Here’s how:

CubeSats in space.

In 2014, a San Francisco startup called Planet Labs launched a constellation of several dozen CubeSats.  These CubeSats are capable of imaging the entire Earth’s surface at a resolution of 5 meters, every day.  Each of those “3U” CubeSats weighs about 4 kilograms.  Suppose the next Pluto mission wasn’t a single orbiter, but rather 10 tiny 3U CubeSat Pluto orbiters.  This whole fleet of Pluto orbiters would weigh 40 kilograms - about 1/10th the mass of New Horizons, and the same as a 6th grader.  A single ton of liquid hydrogen/oxygen fuel could decelerate this tiny payload into Pluto orbit.  Launch from Earth on an SLS, with Jupiter flyby and gravity assist, then direct orbit insertion around Pluto, becomes thinkable.

With this approach, there are a lot of benefits - you get ten Pluto orbiters instead of one - but there are a lot of challenges to overcome.  Solar panels are useless at 40 times the Earth’s distance from the Sun.  So our hypothetical Pluto CubeSat orbiters would need require tiny nuclear reactors for electricity.  A large radio dish several meters across would be needed to beam any useful amount of data back home.  Deploying such a dish from a spacecraft 10 centimeters across is not easy, although inflatables are currently in development.  Interplanetary laser communication systems, as demonstrated in 2013 by NASA’s LADEE moon orbiter, may be the right answer.  These are the cutting edges of today’s spacecraft technology, and you can see why NASA is funding competitions to spur their development.


On September 28th, 2007, eighteen months after New Horizons launched, another NASA dwarf planet explorer lifted off.  Less than four years later, in July 2011, the Dawn mission entered orbit around the asteroid Vesta.  It departed Vesta in September 2012, and entered orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres just this past March.

Dawn spacecraft at Ceres.

Dawn is NASA’s first interplanetary mission to be propelled by electricity.  Instead of a high-thrust rocket engine burning many tons of chemical fuel over the course of a few minutes, Dawn’s electric engines emit tiny amounts of electrically charged ions - at much higher velocities than chemical rocket exhaust.  Dawn’s engines only consume three milligrams of fuel per second.  But the ions emitted from Dawn’s engines have an exhaust velocity over 31 kilometers per second.  That produces a thrust of 91 millinewtons, or about the force a piece of paper exerts on your hand when you pick it up.  Still, the thrust is constant, adding 24 km/hour per day, day after day, to the spacecraft’s velocity.  Over the course of 67 days, the accelerations adds up to a velocity of 1,000 mph.  Dawn carried 425 kilograms of propellant (as opposed to the Centaur booster’s 20.8 tons), and yet Dawn can perform a velocity change of more than 10 km/sec over the course of its mission.

What if New Horizons were equipped with an ion engine, like Dawn’s?  Some modifications would be needed.  Again, solar panels are near-useless at Pluto’s distance from the Sun, so “New Dawn” would need a nuclear reactor quite a bit more powerful than New Horizon’s (whose nuclear reactor produces 250W of electrical power vs. Dawn’s 1400W solar panel array.)  Dawn also weighs about twice as much as Hew Horizons (780 vs 400 kg dry.)  It seems reasonable to guess that a nuclear-powered, ion-propelled Pluto orbiter with the same 30 km/sec exhaust velocity as Dawn could be built with a total spacecraft dry mass of one metric ton.  Plugging those numbers into Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation, our “New Dawn” Pluto orbiter would need 620 kilograms of Xenon fuel to decelerate from 14 km/sec cruise velocity into orbit around Pluto.  Something like this could conceivably be launched from Earth by the same Atlas V 551 that actually launched New Horizons.  It could certainly be launched by the Falcon Heavy or SLS.

How long might this spacecraft take to reach Pluto?  Again, we’ll assume a gravity-assist slingshot by Jupiter, barreling toward Pluto at ~14 kilometers per second.  “New Dawn”, firing its ion engine continuously, would need 1.7 years to shed this velocity as it approached Pluto.  Given an 8-year cruise from Jupiter to Pluto, this seems amply doable.

Dawn was launched little more than a year after New Horizons.  Its technological development schedule paralleled New Horizons’.  The next time Jupiter and Pluto properly align for a gravitational slingshot maneuver will be in 2018-2019.  Using today’s ion propulsion technology, NASA could conceivably mount a New Dawn-like Pluto orbiter mission in just a few years.


Continued in Part III...



If you'd like to follow along with NASA's New Horizons Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, please download our FREE Pluto Safari app.  It is available for iOS and Android mobile devices. Simulate the July 14, 2015 flyby of Pluto, get regular mission news updates, and learn the history of Pluto.

Simulation Curriculum is the leader in space science curriculum solutions and the makers of Starry Night, SkySafari and Pluto Safari. Follow the mission to Pluto with us on Twitter @SkySafariAstro, Facebook and Instagram

The Next Pluto Mission: Part I

On July 14th, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will fly by Pluto.  It’s among NASA’s most impressive achievements to date.  But what might come next?

New Horizons was launched on January 19, 2006, atop an Atlas V 551 rocket with a Centaur upper stage.  That upper stage, and the New Horizons probe inside, had highest launch speed of any man-made object leaving Earth.  New Horizons crossed the Moon’s orbit just 9 hours after launch - the Apollo astronauts took three days - and reached Jupiter in just over a year  (the Voyager spacecraft took nearly three years).  

Launch of New Horizons. The Atlas V rocket on the launchpad (left) and lift off from Cape Canaveral. New Horizons‍ ' launch was the fastest ever to date, at 16.26 km/s.

New Horizons then used Jupiter’s gravity to slingshot itself onto a hyperbolic trajectory that intersects Pluto just over eight years later.

A composite image of Jupiter and Io, taken on on February 28 and March 1, 2007 respectively. Jupiter is shown in infrared, while Io is shown in true-color.

By the time New Horizons reaches Pluto this July, it will be moving at nearly 14 kilometers per second relative to the planet.  That’s 30% faster than the ISS orbits the Earth.  The probe will flash by Pluto in just a few hours.  New Horizons can’t slow down.  It doesn’t carry enough fuel to enter orbit around, or land on, Pluto.  Nor was it designed to.  Instead, New Horizons will keep flying past Pluto, into a vast outer region of our solar system called the Kuiper Belt.  New Horizons may fly by a few Kuiper Belt Objects after its Pluto encounter, a few candidate KBOs are being selected now.

New Horizons flyby of Pluto and Charon on July 14, 2015. Created with Pluto Safari, a free app for iOS and Android.

But what if New Horizons had been intended to stay longer at Pluto?  After a flyby, the next step in planetary exploration is an orbiter to perform extended surface observations, and then a lander.  Are these things even possible, within current technology?  Pluto is forty times farther from the Earth, than Earth is from the Sun.  Transmissions radioed back by New Horizons take four and a half hours to reach us.  Is there any hope of catching anything more than a fleeting glimpse of such a distant place?

Continued in Part II...

If you'd like to follow along with NASA's New Horizons Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, please download our FREE Pluto Safari app.  It is available for iOS and Android mobile devices. Simulate the July 14, 2015 flyby of Pluto, get regular mission news updates, and learn the history of Pluto.

Simulation Curriculum is the leader in space science curriculum solutions and the makers of Starry Night, SkySafari and Pluto Safari. Follow the mission to Pluto with us on Twitter @SkySafariAstro, Facebook and Instagram