Stargazer: Finding Uranus after dark


If there's one thing I've learned during my decades of living on this planet it's that hindsight is 20/20. I'm guessing that most others have discovered this, too. It's true in astronomy as well as in life, and it can be a sobering thought for anyone who's ever gazed upon the heavens with binoculars or a small telescope.

Who knows how many of us have peered into the starry night sky only to have the light of some as-yet-undiscovered body cross our line of sight — an asteroid, comet, supernova or other transient object — without us even knowing? And how many stargazers through the ages have looked upon the seventh planet of our solar system long before it was formally discovered?

It was in 1781 that the German-born British music composer and amateur astronomer William Herschel found the world we now call Uranus. Uranus is, without a doubt, the most mispronounced planet name in the English language, and it almost always gets a giggle out of kids. Of course, you may say it any way you'd like, but the proper pronunciation is YOU-rah-nus.

Its discovery created quite a stir around the world since only five planets were known to exist throughout history: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn (and, of course, Earth). But as you can easily see for yourself, a telescope isn't always needed to spot Uranus. And right now is one of those times.

Once the moon is out of the evening sky mid-October, go outdoors an hour or so after dark and find the Great Square of Pegasus midway up in the eastern sky. Below it lies the faint constellation Pisces, the fishes. You can search for celestial fishes, I suppose, but you'll find it easier to locate two strings of stars connected at the bottom. It is in front of these stars that the planet Uranus now resides.

Try to find the two faint stars Epsilon Piscium and Mu Piscium. Aim binoculars in their direction. Place one star at the top of your field of view, and the other at the bottom. You should spot Uranus as a faint bluish-green "star" just to the left of the line connecting them.

Granted, the ancients didn't have binoculars, but they did have very dark skies and no city lights. If you do, too, put the binoculars down and search for the planet with just your eyes. It's faint — really faint — but you might be surprised to learn that it is actually visible!

Now, one must wonder how history might be different if Uranus had been known in ancient days. After all, the five visible planets (plus the sun and moon) lent importance to the number seven, and we see it everywhere: There are seven days of the week, seven rungs of perfection, seven wonders of the world, seven emblems of the Buddha, seven gates of Thebes and so on. So it's only natural to wonder how we might be different had we known of eight, rather than seven, significant bodies that travelled the heavens? It's only by chance we didn't.

If the ancients had only known!

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