Looking for Uranus!

Hey, Sky Fans!

Happy… today! It’s a gorgeous, bright day around here; the first one of these we’ve had in a while. Here’s to many more to come.

If you’ve been looking for the bright planets lately and keeping score at home, now’s a good time to check in. Jupiter (the stripey one) and Saturn (the with-the-rings one) both set sail and left the night skies a little while ago. Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. They’re still around, but they’re low just after sunset and so really hard to see — so hard that it’s like they’re not even there anymore.

Mercury‘s in the evenings, too, but it’s always tough to spot and its a little close to the Sun’s glare for me, but you might be able to spot it if you head out early enough. Let’s talk about that another time though.

Venus is still in the morning skies, where it’ll be until early spring.

But, then there’s Mars. Oh, Mars… Mars has been spending the nights with us for a while, bright and red. If you ever wondered what a planet full of rusted fence posts would look like from 100 million miles away…

But what about Uranus, the 7th… ball of gas and ice from the Sun; the rolls around on its side one? Have you ever seen it? There’s a lot of talk, maybe, maybe too much talk, that Uranus is a naked-eye object. I don’t know. It’s sad, but with light pollution being what it is, it’s hard to imagine people causally glancing up at the sky some night and saying there’s Uranus {insert joke here}.

Did you know, though that if you have a pair of binoculars, it’s surprisingly easy if you know where to look? “But… how do you know?”

You use the Moon and Mars tonight, that’s how.

If your skies cooperate, head out tonight and look for the Moon. Phases are places, right? Well, the Moon’s near first quarter. That’s the phase we see when the Moon is off to Earth’s left as seen from our northern hemisphere while facing the Sun. This phase rises around midday and sets around midnight. It’s eastern (right-hand) side is lit, and it drags its feet behind us as we orbit the Sun together (What did the tomato say to the lazy tomato?). It’ll… ketchup… over the next few nights, but for now, it gives us a great chance to spot Uranus.

Just look for the ol’ rusty fence post near the Moon and then drop your gaze just a tiny bit to find Uranus. The Moon is down and off to the side, not really a signpost so much, but just like a cairn, one of those piles of rocks people like to put off to the side of the trail, “you’re on the right track.” I don’t know, maybe you can try to imagine a line that runs from the top part of the Moon over toward, but not quite to, Mars.

Here’s a quick screenshot from Stellarium Web. This isn’t really a good spot for the Sky Watch art department, plus they’re all watching the inaugural parade.

Use the Moon and Mars to find Uranus tonight! (from Stellarium)

Like I said, you’ll probably need to scan the skies a little with binoculars, and for tonight, you’ll go on faith that the greyish dot you’re seeing is actually the planet at all. The cool thing is, this, though. The Moon will clear out of there by tomorrow night. If you keep an eye on that Mars-ey part of the sky over the next couple of nights, you’ll actually be able to see the greyish thing move relative to distant stars behind it. If it does, call your friends, start the Zoom meeting, check the box on your big list of seen planets. You did it, you saw Uranus!

It’ll be a little tough because it’s tempting to use Mars for reference, but remember… Mars is wandering, too. So, it’s not a reliable narrator.

Tonight’s a good time to play our favorite game around here, Near, Far, Very Far! The Moon’s about 239,000 miles / 385,000 km away. That’s far enough that it takes the light we see from the Moon about a second and a half to get from the Moon to your eye; pretty near as these things go. Mars, then, is about 100 million miles away / 160 million km. That’s far enough that the Mars you see is the Mars of nine minutes ago. Then Uranus… Uranus is like 20 times farther from Earth than the Sun is (20 “astronomical units”). That’s about 1.85 billion (billion with a B) miles / 3 billion kilometers. It’s almost three light-hours away. Gads.

But wait, there’s more! If you have the time as the night goes on, keep an eye on the Moon. This time of year, the Moon’s path across the sky takes it high into the night. Remember first-quarter Moons set around midnight. Since the Moon crosses so high, its path brings it down really close to perpendicular to the horizon; its lighted half leading the way. You might not think about it much, but even the same phase looks different from one night to the next.

That’s about it for tonight. Thanks for stopping by. Lemme know how the Uranus hunt goes, and clear skies, everyone!

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