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Looking Up column: Catch planet Uranus in binoculars

Peter Becker
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The planet Uranus, right, is compared in size with Earth. This image of Uranus was taken in 1986 by the Voyager 2 spacecraft.

We have been blessed with bright planets to easily see in the evening sky (Mars, Saturn and Jupiter) and early morning sky (Venus). Let’s try for another you can easily see with a pair of binoculars!

The planet Uranus, one of the gas giants, is seventh in line from the sun. British astronomer Sir William Herschel made history after spotting it in his 6.2-inch, 7-foot-long reflecting telescope, on March 3, 1781. This was the first planet ever discovered since mankind first looked up at the heavens enough times to see that some of the bright points of light were slowly moving, unlike the stars.

He made repeated observations over several weeks and consulted with other astronomers before confirmation was made.

The planet has been detected many times before, but astronomers mistook it for a star.

Uranus is well placed in the evening sky this fall. It is actually bright enough to find with eyes alone, as long as you have a dark, clear sky and dark-adapted eyes. It is shining at magnitude +5.7 and appears like one of many very dim stars.

You need a detailed star chart showing where to find Uranus. Once you think you have it, you can confirm it is Uranus by checking back over the next few nights to see if it has moved.

With binoculars, it is easy as pie. 10x35 binoculars will do fine; 10x50 makes the planet even brighter. If you have a telescope with a mirror or lens at least 3 inches wide, use an eyepiece giving you around 100x and you will share what Sir Herschel must have felt, when you see it as a small disc, unlike any star in the night sky.

It appears to have a somewhat greenish tint in a telescope. Some say bluish. I see it as pea green. Anyway, the color is from the perpetually clouded shroud enveloping Uranus, made up of methane gas. What color do you see?

In the early evening, face east to see the constellation Aries the Ram, and Cetus the Whale. Uranus is right between the “tail” stars of the Whale, which is an easily recognized star pattern on the east side of the constellation. (That’s the left side as seen from those of us what I like to say are “Up Over” - opposite of Down Under - and living in the Northern Hemisphere.)

There are four principal stars of Aries. They make a line that bends down on the west (right) side.

To help you find this region in the sky, Aries is a little over to the right from the glittering, compact Pleiades star cluster, a sight you can’t miss. This year, over to the right of Aries, is the bright red planet Mars.

Uranus is very unusual among the planets as it is literally tipped on its side. The axis of rotation, through the planet’s north and south poles, is tilted 98 degrees with respect to the planet’s orbit. The Earth’s axis is tilted 23.5 degrees. It is thought that a major collision knocked the planet over, long, long ago.

At 31,518 miles across, four Earths could fit inside. There are at least 27 moons circling, and 13 extremely faint rings.

Uranus takes 84 Earth years to go around the Sun, which is 1.83 billion miles away, on average.

NASA’s intrepid Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Uranus in 1986.

It may be some time before another space vehicle ventures to Uranus, but with a simple pair of binoculars, you can have a look for yourself the next clear night and let your imagination whirl.

It can make a memory. Like others, I have kept a journal of my astronomical observations. I first located Uranus over 50 years ago, on March 6, 1970, with 7x35 binoculars. I showed the planet to my mother. Uranus was in the constellation Virgo at the time, and has completed more than half of its orbit since then.

The moon is at last quarter on Nov. 8, and new moon is Nov. 15.

Keep looking up at the sky!

Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com. Please mention in what newspaper or website you read this column.

This chart can help you locate the planet Uranus with binoculars, the next clear, dark evening. Look east. Mars will be bright and red-orange. Far over to the left, look for the bright star cluster the Pleiades. The constellation Aries is a little higher, between Mars and the cluster. Uranus is not far above the star pattern sometimes viewed as the "tail" stars of the larger constellation, Cetus the Whale.