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July supermoon, dwarf planet Pluto and New Horizons spacecraft all in Sagittarius tonight

2014-july-11-teapot-pluto-moon-night-sky-chart

Tonight for July 11, 2014

Is the July 12 full moon a supermoon? Sure, and you can read about it here. This year, in 2014, the July, August and September full moons all come close enough to Earth to enjoy supermoon status, though the full moon on August 10 will be the closest supermoon of the year. In the meantime, enjoy the July 11 moon, too. For some of us, it’s actually closer to full than Saturday night’s moon will be, since full moon comes at 11:25 UTC on Saturday (6:25 a.m. CDT). What’s more, the July 11 moon will help you to envision the New Horizons spacecraft heading toward the dwarf planet Pluto with your mind’s-eye! Curious? Follow the links below.

Almost-full moon on July 11 shines near in sky to dwarf planet Pluto and a spacecraft aimed for Pluto

Will dust and debris create a hazard for the New Horizons spacecraft?

Pioneer 11 is also near in the sky to the July 11 moon

Details on the exact time of the July 12 full supermoon

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New Horizons spacecraft on July 1, 2014.  Check this link to see where New Horizons is now.

New Horizons spacecraft on July 1, 2014. Check this link to see where New Horizons is now.

Artist’s conception of the dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, and the very distant sun. Image credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute

Almost-full moon on July 11 shines near in sky to dwarf planet Pluto and a spacecraft aimed for Pluto. The spacecraft is called New Horizons, and it launched from Earth in 2006. It’s due to arrive closest to Pluto, to sweep past it, in July 2015. The moon, Pluto and New Horizons align on nearly the same line of sight on July 11. They are all near the famous Teapot asterism in the constellation Sagittarius, yet you’ll probably have to wait for a moonless night to view the Teapot.

In reality, of course, our companion moon, the stars of Sagittarius, the dwarf planet Pluto and New Horizons are nowhere near each other in space. The July 11 moon resides approximately 360,000 kilometers (224,000 miles) from Earth. In contrast, the New Horizons spacecraft lies about 12,000 times farther than our moon, and the dwarf planet Pluto lurks way out there at over 13,000 times the moon’s distance. If all goes according to plan, New Horizons should sweep closest to Pluto on July 14, 2015.

Do you want to see Pluto? You’ll need at least an 8-inch telescope (some say an even larger telescope) and a good star chart. Here’s a good link from the In-The-Sky.org information and a chart that can help telescope users find Pluto in 2014.

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope took this image of the Pluto system. The image shows five moons orbiting the distant, icy dwarf planet. The green circle marks the most recently discovered moon, designated P5. The observations will help scientists in their planning for the January 2015 flyby of Pluto by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA; ESA; M. Showalter, SETI Institute

Will dust and debris create a hazard for the New Horizons spacecraft, when the craft sweeps past Pluto in 2015? Pluto resides in the icy realms of the solar system and remains very much a mysterious world. Much to the surprise of astronomers, Pluto now has five known moons. Two of them were discovered after New Horizons launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida in January 2006. Astronomers had some fear that debris hitting the moons might have created dangerous dust clouds that in turn would slam into and damage New Horizons as it sweeps past Pluto in 2015, moving at some 30,000 miles per hour (more than 48,000 kilometers per hour). There was some talk of the possibility of course adjustments, which would carry the craft farther from Pluto, at what might be a safer distance.

A year ago, UniverseToday.com reported the results of an impact assessment study of the Pluto system. As a result of the study, space engineers have now decided to stay the course – that is, stick with the originally planned trajectory – for New Horizons. They say the danger posed by dust and debris is much less than originally feared.

What more will astronomers find out when the New Horizons probe passes Pluto in 2015? At this point, it’s anyone’s guess, but Pluto fans are sure to enjoy the encounter.

Pioneer 11 is also near in the sky to the July 11 moon. Incidentally, we also show the Pioneer 11 spacecraft on the sky chart at the top of this post. Launched in 1973, Pioneer 11 is now a whopping 37,000 times farther from Earth than tonight’s moon. Three spacecraft are even more distant than Pioneer 11: Pioneer 10, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Click here to find out their present distances from the Earth and sun in astronomical units. One astronomical unit equals the sun/Earth distance.

What is a supermoon?

Day and night sides of Earth at instant of July full moon

Day and night sides of Earth at the instant of the July 2014 full moon (2014 July 12 at 11:25 Universal Time)

Day and night sides of Earth at the instant of the July 2014 full moon (2014 July 12 at 11:25 Universal Time)

Details on the exact time of the July 12 full supermoon. The moon reaches the crest of its full phase on July 12 (11:25 Universal Time or 7:25 a.m. EDT, 6:25 a.m. CDT, 5:25 MST or 4:25 a.m. PST in the U.S.). Thus, in North America, the moon appears about equally full in the July 11 and 12 evening skies. Only the West Coast of North America will see the moon at the precise instant of the full moon, shortly before sunrise on July 12, at 4:25 a.m. PST. See worldwide map above.

Bottom line: The moon reaches the crest of its full phase at on July 12, 2014 at 11:35 UT (6:35 a.m. CDT in the U.S.). Thus, for North America, the moon appears about equally full in the June 11 evening sky as it does in the July 12 evening sky. What’s more, on the night of July 11-12, the bright moon shines in the same region of sky as the dwarf planet Pluto and the New Horizons spacecraft, now on its way to Pluto and due to arrive in 2015.

What is the most distant human object from Earth?