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 Pluto Charon and Triple Star Labeled
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Pluto, Charon and Triple Star (Labeled)

April 22, 2005
High-Resolution VLT Image of Pluto Event on July 20, 2002

A rare celestial phenomenon involving the distant planet Pluto has occurred twice within the past month. Seen from the Earth, this planet moved in front of two different stars on July 20 and August 21, respectively, providing observers at various observatories in South America and in the Pacific area with a long awaited and most welcome opportunity to learn more about the tenuous atmosphere of that cold planet. On the first date, a series of very sharp images of a small sky field with Pluto and the star was obtained with the NAOS-CONICA (NACO) adaptive optics (AO) camera mounted on the ESO VLT 8.2-m YEPUN telescope at the Paranal Observatory .

With a diameter of about 2300 km, Pluto is about six times smaller than the Earth. Like our own planet, it possesses a relatively large moon, Charon , measuring 1200 km across and circling Pluto at a distance of about 19,600 km once every 6.4 days. In fact, because of the similarity of the two bodies, the Pluto-Charon system is often referred to as a double planet .

At the current distance of nearly 4,500 million km from the Earth, Pluto's disk subtends a very small angle in the sky, 0.107 arcsec. It is therefore very seldom that Pluto - during its orbital motion - passes exactly in front of a comparatively bright star. Such events are known as "occultations" , and it is difficult to predict exactly when and where on the Earth's surface they are visible.