Prime Time for Uranus

The solar system’s seventh planet is ideally placed for viewing right now.

Andrew Kwon - Uranus

Andrew Kwon captured this view of Uranus from his backyard observatory in Mississauga, Ontario, and noted that “the planet’s featureless disc showed really well in good seeing.”

As we previously described in “This Week’s Sky,” now is the time to hunt for Uranus. On the night of October 3, the planet was at opposition — meaning, it was situated opposite the Sun’s position in the sky. As a result, Uranus presently rises at sunset, and sets at sunrise. This also means it’s ideally placed for viewing since it’s high overhead by midnight. If you’ve never sighted this distant world before, now is a good time to try.

To begin, get out the latest issue of SkyNews and open the magazine to the centre star chart. Locate the constellation Pisces on the chart, then go outside and find it in the sky. Be warned though: Pisces isn’t exactly the most distinct stellar grouping. Most of the sprawling constellation’s stars are faint and can be challenging to see if you’re viewing near city lights. Once you can trace out Pisces, you’re ready to hunt down Uranus.

Uranus chart - wide.In your binoculars, aim for the stars Delta and Epsilon Piscium, indicated in the chart above. If you visualize these two stars as the blade of a short, upside-down hockey stick, Uranus will be the point of light representing the end of the shaft.

How can you be sure you’ve sighted Uranus and not some random star? There are two ways. First, Uranus is relatively bright compared with the faintest stars you’ll see in your binoculars. (Consult the chart below for the planet’s precise position.)  Second,  go out a couple of nights later and look again — Uranus will have shifted slightly against the pattern of background stars. Indeed, it was this night-to-night movement  that allowed  the great astronomer William Herschel to discover Uranus in 1781. Of course, tracking the planet’s motion is easier if you make a quick field sketch each time you view it.

Uranus binocular chart

This 5-degree-wide binocular chart shows the planet’s position through  December 1.

In your telescope, Uranus will look like a pale, slightly greenish dot of light.  With sufficient magnification you can see that it’s a tiny disc and not a star-like point. Don’t expect to see much more though.  Although Uranus does have cloud belts, they’re very low contrast and extremely difficult to perceive compared with Jupiter’s.  Still, just sighting Uranus for the first time will give you a modest sense of the thrill that Herschel must have experienced when he discovered the planet so long ago.

Gerhard Salhenegger - Uranus

Ontario observer Gerhard Salhenegger used the zoom lens of his Canon PowerShot SX50 HS camera to snap this photo of Uranus on October 3rd. Gerhard’s image does a good job conveying how the planet appears in binoculars, or in a low-power telescope.

Categories: Moon and Planets
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