Jimmy Westlake: The trouble with Uranus

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Uranus.

There, I said it. The very thought of having to say the name of the seventh planet over the airwaves is enough to send chills up the spine of even a veteran reporter. Imagine choking on embarrassing headlines like, "Astronomers today announced the discovery of five dirty rings around Uranus," or, "This week, NASA scientists probed Uranus for the first time," or, "Scientists are monitoring Uranus very closely for signs of methane gas."

During the 1986 flyby of Uranus by the Voyager 2 spacecraft, blushing reporters attempted to change the pronunciation to something sounding like "urine-us," which, sadly, wasn't much better.

William Herschel, the discoverer of the seventh planet in 1781, wanted to name it George, after the tyrannical king of England. Others simply referred to it as Mr. Herschel's planet. But eventually, the green orb was given the mortifying moniker of Uranus. 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 PR problem.

Well, giggles or not, I am here today to tell you that now is the prime time to see Uranus. Uranus, with its dirty rings and its entourage of 27 moons, was closest to the Earth this year on the night of Sept. 5, an event called opposition. A keen-eyed observer who knows where to look can actually spot Uranus with his or her naked eye.

The best viewing in late September is about 11 p.m. Face due south and locate the distinctive Y-shaped pattern of four stars that makes up the "Water Jug" asterism in Aquarius. You can find Uranus about one fist-width - held at arm's length - below the Water Jug, just to the east, or left, of the star Lambda Aquarii. At a distance of 19 astronomical units, Uranus is the most distant planet visible without a telescope, even if only barely so.

To celebrate the opposition of the seventh planet, why not invite some friends over and have a Uranus-watching party? If you have a telescope, you and your friends can take turns looking at Uranus up close, perhaps for the very first time!

Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus.

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