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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I Finally Found Uranus and YOU can too!

Now, this is a special event for me because I’ve never positively identified it before in the night sky. There have been times when I thought I was looking at Uranus, but I’ve never before been sure of it. At its brightest, it is sometimes barely visible to the naked eye in very dark skies with no light pollution, but it usually requires a good star chart to find.

Uranus is the seventh planet out from the Sun, beyond Saturn and smaller than Saturn too, so it’s no wonder that it’s much more difficult to see. Below is an image captured by the Voyager 2 spacecraft during it’s flyby of the planet in 1986.

Above: Voyager 2’s view of Uranus. As you can see, Uranus is quite featureless – it’s one of the gas giants, so you are basically looking at its opaque atmosphere although it is thought to have a rocky core. Both Voyager 1 and 2 are still functioning and sending data back to Earth after over 33 years! They are both currently leaving the Solar System and are, respectively about 17 and 14 billion kilometers from the Sun.

Of course Uranus is easier to pick out with good binoculars, but often still requires a star chart. However, these days it is getting easier and easier to see because of it’s apparent proximity to Jupiter in the sky, using Jupiter and nearby stars as reference points to find your way around. Jupiter is an extremely easy target, second only to Venus in brightness.

In any case, this has been a lifelong quest for me. Not that I’ve made it an overwhelming priority all the time, because quite often life gets in the way of such pursuits. But off and on I’ve tried to locate Uranus for a very long time. And having to make do with binoculars as my only aid because I could never afford a decent telescope with the proper mount for accurate pointing and tracking of celestial objects has only made my task a bigger challenge.

But finally, the combination of having 16-power binoculars, excellent star chart software, and clear night skies, together with Uranus being so close to Jupiter, allowed me to chalk up another celestial wonder in my sightings log.

Below are two annotated star charts from my Starry Night Pro 5 program to show you where and how I found Uranus.

Below: a zoomed version of the sky chart above.

On September 14, 2010, Uranus will be directly above Jupiter in the night sky and if you have clear night skies and at least a good pair of binoculars, you’ll be able to see Uranus too! So, by all mean, GET OUT THERE and take a look! Those of you with excellent night vision might just be able to pick it out with just your unaided eyes.

Below is a short video I’ve made to show you the apparent movement of Jupiter and Uranus against the star field background. Notice the apparent retrograde motion of both planets after their initial trek westward. This is because of our changing perspective as Earth, Jupiter, and Uranus all orbit the Sun. Also note that this video proceeds in steps of 1 day (actually a tiny bit less than 1 day in order to keep the star field stationary) – it’s not real time, but highly sped up time.

Clear skies to you all!

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