Celestial News: With a name like Uranus …
October 11, 2016
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 such as, "This week, NASA scientists probed Uranus for the first time," or, "Astronomers announced today the discovery of five dark rings around Uranus."
Heck, 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 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 from the rest of Europe.
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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 PR 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 up in the sky.
This year, Uranus, with its dingy rings and its entourage of 27 moons, will be closest to the Earth the night of Oct. 15, an event called opposition. Uranus is only 1.8-billion miles from Earth this week. A keen-eyed observer who knows exactly where to look can actually spot Uranus without a telescope.
It is the most far-flung planet that can be glimpsed with the unaided eye. The best viewing time will be after Oct. 20, when this month's full moon is out of the way, about 11 p.m. in mid October and 10 p.m. in late October.
Look for Uranus in the constellation of Pisces, the Fish, about a fist width above the star Alrescha.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Steamboat Springs Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in Steamboat Today. Check out Westlake's astrophotography website at jwestlake.com.