An Observation of Pluto from the Heart of Springfield

by Richard Sanderson
Reproduced from The StarGazer - Volume 2 - Winter, 1988


Observations of Pluto - April 16 & 17, 1974

I once believed that Pluto was beyond range of an observer living in the city, regardless of the type of telescope used. But 14 years ago, former STARS Club member Steve Bertelli and I proved this notion wrong when we made a series of observations of Pluto from the heart of Springfield.

In the spring of 1974, "Sky & Telescope" published a detailed finder chart for Pluto, and Steve and I decided to try to glimpse the 9th planet through the Springfield Science Museum's 2O-inch telescope. Having had great difficulty finding the Crab and Owl Nebulae due to smog and sky glow, we wondered, if searching for Pluto from the city was futile. However, we knew from a year of observing with the 2O-inch that stellar objects are easier to detect from a light polluted site than nebulous objects.

It took me a half hour to star-hop into the field of lOth and llth magnitude stars where Pluto was hiding. Steve and I independently sketched this field, recording stars down to the limit of visibility, at magnifications of X12O and X25O. Later, we combined our two observations into a single sketch, keeping only the stars which we had both observed.

The following night, we repeated this procedure, again making a final sketch showing only those stars Steve and I had both observed. Comparing this sketch to the one made on the previous night, we immediately noticed that one faint star had moved slightly, relative to the other stars. It was an exciting moment when we realized that we had observed the elusive Pluto.

We quickly returned to the telescope for another look at Pluto. It appeared as a very faint, sparkling point of light. It would disappear every few seconds as atmospheric turbulence increased, but during the brief moments of good seeing, this 14th magnitude flicker of light was unmistakably visible like a tiny diamond in the night, just on the verge of visibility.

Two nights later, we were able to spot Pluto within a couple minutes, and its motion after two nights was considerable at X12O. After this third observation, there was a spell of bad weather and we never bothered to find Pluto again, but I still consider my first glimpse of this frozen world to be one of my most exciting observations.

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