Jimmy Westlake: With a name like Uranus …
September 14, 2011
There, I said it.
The very thought of having to utter the name of the seventh planet in public is enough to strike fear in the heart of even a veteran reporter. Imagine choking on embarrassing headlines like "Astronomers announced today the discovery of five dirty rings around Uranus" or "This week, NASA scientists probed Uranus for the first time."
During Voyager 2's historic flyby of Uranus in 1986, blushing reporters attempted to change the pronunciation to something sounding like "Urine-us," which, sadly, wasn't much better.
William Herschel, the guy who discovered the seventh planet way back in 1781, wanted to name it George, after George III, the tyrannical king of England. Naturally, that didn't sit very well with astronomers from the rest of Europe. For about 70 years after its discovery, it was simply referred to as "Mr. Herschel's planet," but eventually the green orb was given the mortifying moniker of Uranus. Mythologically, this makes perfect sense because Uranus was the father of Saturn, who was the father of Jupiter, who was the father of Mars. The outer solar system is really an Olympian family tree.
Mention the name of Mr. Herschel's planet in a classroom, and listen to the wave of snickers and giggles ripple through the crowd. Now, don't get me wrong. Uranus is a perfectly good planet. It just suffers from a sort of public-relations problem and is the butt of many a joke. Oops. Heck, with a name like Uranus, it has to be a good planet.
Well, giggles or not, I am writing today to inform you that now is the prime time to see Uranus. Uranus, with its dirty rings and its entourage of 27 moons, will be closest to Earth this year on the evening of Sept. 25, an event called opposition. A keen-eyed observer who knows where to look can actually spot Uranus with an unaided eye. The best viewing time will be at about 11 p.m. during mid-September and at 10 p.m. in late September.
To find Uranus, face the southeastern sky at about 11 p.m. and locate the four bright stars forming the Great Square of Pegasus asterism. Extend a line through the two stars making the eastern side of the Great Square an equal distance southward. Uranus will be the only faint "star" near that spot. At a distance of 1.8 billion miles this month, Uranus is the most far-flung planet visible to the unaided eye, even if only barely so. Binoculars will show it more clearly, and a telescope will reveal its tiny, bluish-green disk. Don't expect to see any rings or moons around Uranus with a typical backyard telescope.
Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published all around the world. Check out Jimmy's astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.