Solar eclipses on Pluto

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Views of Pluto and Charon during the solar eclipse of 12 August 2110, rendered in Celestia, as the shadow of Charon moves across Sputnik Planum. The eclipse gives Pluto the appearance of a "pitted olive in space".

Solar eclipses on Pluto are caused when one of its five natural satellites—Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx—passes in front of the Sun, blocking its light.

An eclipse of the Sun on Pluto can occur only when one of the satellites' orbital nodes, the points where their orbits cross the dwarf planet's ecliptic, is lined up with the apparent position of the Sun as seen from Pluto. Because three of its satellites orbit in the same plane, the times at which this is possible are the same for all three. Due to Pluto's large axial tilt (120°), this can only occur at two points in Pluto's orbit, centered on perihelion and aphelion.

Charon has an angular diameter of roughly 4 degrees of arc as seen from the surface of Pluto; the Sun appears much smaller, only 40 arcseconds to 1 arcminute. Charon's proximity further ensures that a large proportion of Pluto's surface can experience an eclipse. Because Pluto always presents the same face towards Charon due to tidal locking, only the Charon-facing hemisphere can experience a solar eclipse by Charon.

There are large uncertainties in the diameters of the four smaller moons, and as a result their apparent diameters (as seen from Pluto) are also uncertain. However, it is known that Nix's angular diameter is 3–9 minutes of arc and Hydra's is 2–7 minutes. These are much larger than the Sun's angular diameter, so total solar eclipses are possible with these moons.

The period when eclipses were observed on Pluto was between February 1985 and October 1990.[1] As seen from Earth, Charon also transited Pluto every orbit during this period. By measuring the change in brightness during these transit events, astronomers were able to measure the radius of both Pluto and Charon. Currently, telescopes, such as the Hubble Space Telescope have high enough resolution that the radius can be measured directly.

The next period of time when solar eclipses can occur on Pluto will begin October 2103, peak in 2110, and end January 2117. During this period, solar eclipses will occur at some point on Pluto every orbit of Charon. The maximum duration of any solar eclipse by Charon as seen from Pluto during this period is about 90 minutes.[2][3]

See also[edit]

Pluto in front of the Sun, as viewed by New Horizons, 2015
  • The New Horizons spacecraft passed through the shadow of Pluto on its flyby on July 14, 2015.


  1. ^ Lucy-Ann Adams McFadden; Paul Robert Weissman; Torrence V Johnson (2006). Encyclopedia of the Solar System. Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-088589-1. 
  2. ^ "Start of Eclipse". JPL Solar System Simulator. 12 December 1987. Retrieved 2014-07-29.  (Pluto as seen from the Sun during mid-eclipse)
  3. ^ "End of Eclipse". JPL Solar System Simulator. 12 December 1987. Retrieved 2014-07-29. 

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