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Astro Bob: How to find the planet Yoo-RAIN-us

On Wednesday, Nov. 9, Earth and Uranus will be at their closest for the year. All you need is a pair of binoculars to find and track this distant blue world.

Uranus wide map
The fully-eclipsed moon parked near Uranus during the recent eclipse (see below), making the planet a snap to find. If you missed that opportunity, there'll be plenty more. Uranus shines in Aries the Ram not far from the Seven Sisters star cluster. The moon is shown for Nov. 9.
Contributed / Stellarium
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When it comes to the seventh planet many of us feel awkward pronouncing its name. I grew up with yoo-RAIN-us because the word anus simply wasn't in common usage at the time. How I miss those days of innocence. As I grew older and wiser in the ways of the world I quietly switched to the alternative "YOUR-in-us" to avoid knowing looks and my own temptation to drop one-liners.

Now I'm back to using the older pronunciation because equivocating just takes too much energy. To back me up I direct your attention to Exhibit A — uranium. Element 92 was named after the planet. Say the word out loud, and you'll understand my point.

Not matter how you vocalize it, Uranus is certainly a strange planet. It rotates around the sun on its side tilted 98° from vertical. Astronomers hypothesize that a cataclysmic collision between a young protoplanet roughly twice the size of Earth literally tipped Uranus over.

Uranus largest moons
Uranus's largest moons are composed of a mixture of ice and rock. Some may be remnants of the collision that tilted the planet on its side.
Contributed / NASA, JPL-Caltech

Debris from the mashup could still be trapping heat rising from Uranus's core and account the planet's frigid atmospheric temperature which hovers around 350° below zero (-212° C). Some of its 27 known moons may even be shrapnel formed from material blasted into nearby space that later coalesced into spheres through self-gravity.

One year on Uranus lasts 84 Earth years — the time it takes the remote planet to circle the sun at an average distance of 1.8 billion miles (2.9 billion km). Light leaving the cold, cloudy world at 186,000 miles per second (300,000 km/sec) must travel 2.6 hours before reaching our eyes.

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Earth Uranus compared simple version_edited-1.jpg
Uranus is the third largest planet after Jupiter and Saturn. Its atmosphere is mostly hydrogen and helium, but a small amount of methane present tints the globe a pretty shade of aqua. (NASA images)
Contributed / NASA images

Uranus glows blue-green from methane (which absorbs red light and reflects back blue) and is almost exactly four times as big as Earth. That makes it the next largest planet after Saturn and third biggest overall. But its great distance makes it look no different from a star when viewed with the naked eye or binoculars.

A telescope magnifying 100x or more will reveal a tiny, bluish disk about the size of a pinhead. With a 10-inch or larger telescope, you can seek the planet's two largest and brightest moons, Titania and Oberon.

Eclipse and Uranus
During the Nov. 8 total lunar eclipse it was easy to pick out the planet Uranus in binoculars near the eclipsed moon — overexposed here to better show the planet and stars.
Contributed / Bob King

Now's the best time to see the remote ice giant, since it reaches opposition on Nov. 9, when it's closest to Earth and brightest. Under dark, moonless skies it's even visible without optical aid. Binoculars make it easily accessible even from relatively light-polluted skies.

Although Uranus resides in an out-of-the-way corner of Aries this season, it's relatively easy to find if you start at the Pleiades (Seven Sisters), a bright, dipper-shaped star cluster that's well-placed for viewing in the eastern sky starting around 8 p.m. local time.

Uranus detailed map
This map will help you pinpoint the planet's location in binoculars or a telescope and watch its slow movement to the west (up and across) over the next 6 weeks. Positions are shown every two weeks starting on Wednesday, Nov. 9.
Contributed / Stellarium with additions by Bob King

The wide-view map at the top of this page shows the planet's general location and direction. Use it to get oriented, then switch to the more detailed chart. I added arrows with a suggested "route" starting at the Pleiades. From there, slide right and star-hop to two convenient "way stations," the Trapezoid and Triangle. Once you've found the Triangle, look a little below it for a "star" at the position(s) shown on the map. That's Uranus!

Of course, you can choose a different path to the target. Either way, if you drop by for a look every week or two you'll see Uranus inch westward (up and to the right when facing east). Seeing movement will guarantee that you're looking at the real thing. Stars are fixed in position relative to each, but planets move — one of the things that make them so cool to observe.

Read more from Astro Bob
Cetus emerges from the sea of night to prepare the way for Orion. How to find this enormous yet unfamiliar constellation.

Related Topics: SCIENCE AND NATURE
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer and retired photographer for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at nightsky55@gmail.com.
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