Creative Commons License Copyright © Michael Richmond. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Ephemerides and Finding Charts

Ephemerides for solar system objects

Locating objects in the solar system -- planets, asteroids, comets -- can be tricky. Although we can predict the motions of the major planets and asteroids accurately, orbits of the smaller bodies may change significantly over a small number of years: they may be perturbed by the gravitational forces of other bodies, or additional observations may improve their orbital elements. Comets are subject to large non-gravitational forces as surface material sublimates and shoots off their surfaces, sometimes in jets:

Moreover, new asteroids and comets are being discovered all the time; any planetarium program will have an old list which doesn't contain the latest discoveries.

I recommend using the JPL Solar System Dynamics web site as a good starting point for all things in the solar system. The tool I use the most is

When you connect to the site, you'll see a page with a list of settings.

You should click on each one in turn to prepare to generate a list of positions for the object of interest.

  1. Ephemeris Type The default "Observer" is the one we'll always use.
  2. Target Body Select the planet, comet or asteroid of interest; you can provide a name like Halley, a numerical designation like 1P/Halley, or just pick from the list.
  3. Observer Location You can type the name of a location on Earth, or choose an observatory from the offical MPC list. The RIT Observatory is number 920.
  4. Time Span Choose the date(s) and time(s) over which you want the positions. Note that the default time system is Universal Time (UT), not Eastern time.
  5. Table Settings I like to pick a few items not in the defaults: Azimuth and Elevation, Airmass, and Heliocentric range (distance from the Sun).

    If you scroll down a bit, you'll see another bunch of options. I usually select

At this point, I submit the form. The JPL site returns an "ephemeris", which is simply a list of positions (and other properties) at a set of times. For example,

The default output runs across many columns; the important quantities are

Once you have a list of dates, times and positions, you can use a planetarium program to figure out where to look ... or you can use one of the several on-line tools to make finding charts.

Making finding charts with Aladin

There are two big players in the on-line astronomical database game:

They both are great resources, with slightly different points of view: SIMBAD concentrates on stellar data, whereas NED specializes in information on extragalactic objects. There is quite a bit of overlap between their databases and their capabilities. I'll discuss SIMBAD here, since we can't do much extragalactic work at RIT.

If you just want some information on a star, you can go to the SIMBAD home page and enter a query by identifier or coordinates. For example, a search on 61 Cygni returns a page with a bunch of basic information:

If that's not enough, further down on the returned page are

If you want to make a finding chart for an object, I recommend the

It will create charts which are well-matched to the scale of the RIT Observatory's CCD camera, and provide a wealth of additional information. For example, let's consider the star WZ Sge, an interacting binary which very rarely increases in brightness by over a factor of 100.

  1. Start Aladin, and wait for the applet to load in your browser.
  2. Choose File -> Load Astronomical Image -> Aladin Image Server
  3. Type "WZ Sge" into the Target box, and press Submit
  4. You will be given a list of images -- pick the "POSS I O-DSS2 (0.645um)" with a size of 13.0x13.0 arcminutes. item. The "POSS II" items with fields of 13x13 or 14x14 arcminutes are also good choices. Again, press Submit
  5. Now wait for a copy of the sky survey image to be transferred to your computer -- the little green light on the right-hand side of the main window will blink if the transfer is active

  6. At the center of the image, the crosshairs will indicate the catalogued position of the object. If you move your cursor around in the image, its coordinates at any moment will be displayed in the box just above the image.
  7. If you choose the "Dist" item on the right-hand edge of the image, then left-click and drag, you can measure the distance and position angle between any locations in the image.
  8. Now, look in the "Server Selector" window which should have popped up a moment ago.
  9. Click the Surveys item, on the right side of the window.
  10. You will be presented with a list of catalogs. The one called "USNO-B1" is often a good starting point. Select it and press Submit
  11. Eventually, a colored overlay should appear over the image. If you move the cursor over a colored item, a message appears below the bottom of the image. Click the mouse and a line(s) will appear in the small grey box below the image:

  12. As you move your cursor over these fields, Aladin will give you the meaning of each one. For the USNO-B1.0 catalog, the intesting ones are

  13. If you click on the catalog name, a new window pops up with the full description of this object in the catalog.

  1. Look up the position of Pluto as seen from RIT Observatory on the night of Jul 4, 2010 UT. Be sure to request position each hour.
  2. What is the magnitude listed for Pluto on this date? Look for the "APmag" column in the ephemeris.
  3. Make a finding chart for your object. (I suggest using the SERC SR-DSS2" image from Aladin) Mark by hand the position of the object at 9:00 PM, 11:00 PM, and 1:00 AM local time.
  4. Find two stars in the field which have approximately the same magnitude as your object. Use the "USNO-B1.0" survey. Mark them by hand on your chart.
  5. The RIT 12-inch telescope and CCD camera (without focal reducer) yield a field of view about 16 by 12 arcminutes. How does your chart compare to this field?
  6. Compare your chart to the image of Pluto taken on that night (shown below). Can you figure out the orientation of the image? (If you click on the Image -> Symmetry menu item of the Aladin window, you'll be able to flip/flop the chart top-for-bottom and left-for-right. Try it). Can you find Pluto? Perhaps it might help to blink.

  7. Pick one of the following objects.
    • Pluto
    • NGC 205
    • V407 Cygni
    • Euterpe
    • The Ring Nebula
    • Albireo
    • NGC 6205
    • an object of your choice, subject to instructor's approval

    Do the following for this object.

    1. If it is a member of the solar system, use JPL Horizons Web Interface to figure out where it will be on this coming April 15 at 10 PM and midnight local time.
    2. If not a solar system object, use SIMBAD to look up basic information.
    3. Make a finding chart for the object using Aladin.
    4. Measure a rough size for the object. Express the size in both arcminutes and degrees.
    5. Determine roughly the magnitude of your object.

Creative Commons License Copyright © Michael Richmond. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.