planets on display
Uranus reaches opposition, making it a great target
Rather bizarrely, it could be said that Uranus is ‘dominating’ the evening sky this month. How could that possibly be? After all, the planet’s low magnitude of 5.7 means that technically it is a naked-eye object, but in reality it is only visible with the assistance of a pair of binoculars or a telescope to observers with almost-perfect eyesight looking for it from a darksky location without any interference from the light pollution caused by artificial lights, or from the bright glow of the Moon.
Even under those perfect conditions the planet’s low magnitude means that it does not stand out from the other stars around it; to identify which of the many dots in the sky Uranus is, an observer needs to know the planet’s position relative to all those background stars very, very accurately.
That will require the use of a detailed star chart, either generated by an app on a phone or tablet, an astronomy website or a computer planetarium program such as Stellarium.
Then, when you’ve pinned down which part of the sky it is in, if you want to see Uranus itself you will need to scan the sky using a pair of binoculars or a small telescope to make the planet stand out more clearly. Through a pair of binoculars Uranus is given away by its colour alone – it appears as a green-white ‘star’ surrounded by less colourful, but brilliant, white or blue-white stars.
Through a small telescope Uranus will stand out from the celestial crowd more obviously because it will look like a tiny, pale-green disc instead of a sharp point of light. Higher magnifications make the disc larger, but will also enhance its subtle colour. If you’re the owner of a 12” or larger telescope Uranus will look a lot like a planetary nebula, minus the central star of course.
If Uranus is so unimpressive, why bother looking for it in the first place? Because – as with so many things in the night sky – the appeal of looking at Uranus isn’t its actual appearance in your eyepiece, but knowing and appreciating what it is you’re looking at. The good news is that this month you’ll have plenty of time to track it down on the next clear night because it is visible right through the night, from dusk until dawn. As the sky darkens after sunset you’ll find Uranus over in the east, already quite high, shining just inside the southern border of Aries. It will then be carried from east to west through the evening, and by the time the western sky is starting to brighten with the approach of dawn it will be low in the west.