Jimmy Westlake: A planet by any other name


Jimmy Westlake

Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Westlake here.


There, I said it.

The very thought of having to utter the name of the seventh planet in public is enough to send chills up the spine 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 the Voyager 2 spacecraft's 1986 flyby of Uranus, 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 back in the year 1781, wanted to name it George, after George III, the tyrannical king of England. Naturally, that didn't set very well with astronomers on the Continent. For about 100 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 a PR problem.

Well, giggles or not, I am here today to tell you that now is the prime time to see Uranus up in the sky. Uranus, with its dingy rings and its entourage of 27 moons, was closest to the Earth for this year on the night of September 9, an event called opposition. A keen-eyed observer who knows right where to look can actually spot Uranus with the naked eye. The best viewing time will be about 11 p.m. during mid-September and about 10 p.m. in late September.

To find Uranus, face due south and locate the small, distinctive "Y" shaped pattern of four stars that forms the "Water Jug" in Aquarius. You can find Uranus about one fist-width, held at arm's length, below the Water Jug, very close to the star named Phi Aquarii.

At a distance of 19 astronomical units, Uranus is the most distant planet visible to the unaided eye, even if only barely so. To celebrate this opposition of the seventh planet, why not invite some friends over and have a Uranus-watching party?

Professor 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 on the websites of CNN.com, NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day," Spaceweather.com, Space.com, Discover.com, NationalGeographic.com, and in Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Night Sky, Discover, and WeatherWise magazines. His "Celestial News" article appears weekly in the local Steamboat Pilot newspaper. His "Cosmic Moment" radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU.


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