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Imaging dwarf planets with amateur equipment

I have a fascination with the outer planets and dwarf planets. Perhaps it’s the July heat that makes me wonder about places so cold… Anyway, I wondered if it would be possible to image one with my setup in suburbia, and as you’ll see below, it is!

I used wolframalpha.com to get the coordinates of Makemake. It sets early after sunset right now, but there was still enough time to get a few exposures. I knew it would be clear several nights in a row, but I wasn’t sure how well this magnitude 17 object would show up. On July 1, I programmed the coordinates into the CGEM as a user object, slewed to it, calibrated guiding, and shot four 4-minute subs through the 8″ AstroTech R-C with a Canon 450D. Then I went on to image the deep-sky target I’d planned to image that night, figuring this was just a quick experiment. On July 2, I did the same, except I took five 4-minute exposures, since it was getting a little closer to the horizon.  Amazingly, it was clear three nights in a row, so I grabbed another 20 minutes of exposures on July 3.

I calibrated the frames, stacked them, then overlaid them in Photoshop as “Difference” layers. It didn’t take long to find the one remaining “star.” Blinking the two confirmed movement. The expected movement for ~24 hours was ~43 arc seconds (again, from wolframalpha.com), and I was measuring about 41. I grabbed a shot from NASA’s deep sky survey site centered on the region, and marked the predicted spot with a red dot. Sure enough, the little guy was in the right place. I also verified with the Lowell Observatory asteroid plotter (http://asteroid.lowell.edu/cgi-bin/astplot) that this wasn’t a random asteroid. Sure enough, it’s Makemake.

This dwarf planet is about 2/3 the size of Pluto, but much farther out at 52 AU. It’s amazing what you can image with amateur equipment and software that tells you exactly where to look!

Below is an animated GIF with the three consecutive nights’ exposures.  You may have to click on it to show the animation.

Three nights animation of Makemake

Three nights animation of Makemake

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