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How you can spot Uranus on Thursday night

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
September 18th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Okay all kidding aside, this week affords one of the best opportunities for you to see the planet Uranus from a dark-sky area near you.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The planet Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun and the  third-largest (in size) in the Solar System. The enigmatic planet shines dimly with a unique blue color and has its own ring system several moons, and spins sideways unlike all the other planets.

The planet was officially discovered by astronomer William Herschel in 1781, but was catalogued as a star as early as 1690. Under the darkest-sky conditions it is faintly visible to the naked eye, however even trained skywatchers have difficulty seeing it.

The planet will be next to the full Harvest Moon, which washes out the dark sky, but compensates by serving as a guidepost for the elusive planet. Observers should look to the lower left of the moon on the night of September 19 after it becomes dark. Uranus will appear as a blue-green dot in telescopes or binoculars.

Unfortunately, the planet will not be visible to the naked eye in the glare of the full Moon.

More powerful telescopes will reveal the small disk of the planet, demonstrating that it is not just another star.

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When you look at the distant planet, you are seeing more than halfway of the way to the edge of our Solar System. Beyond Uranus is only one more planet, Neptune. The minor planets of Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, Eris and probably hundreds of undiscovered others that are farther out, but much smaller and more difficult to see. In fact, to spot these you will need a very large telescope such as those found in observatories.

Uranus is a curious planet made even more so because it rotates on its side. It's north pole nearly points toward the plane of the Solar System, likely a result of a cataclysmic collision with another massive planet during its formation. The curious feature means that a day of Uranus lasts 84 Earth years with 42 years of sunlight followed by 42 years of darkness!

The planet also has its own system of rings, just like Saturn, except the rings are virtually invisible to telescopes. The rings were discovered when Uranus passed in front of a star in 1977 and astronomers noticed the starlight dimming and brightening five times just before and after the planetary disk passed in front of the star. Subsequent observations from Earth, Voyager 2, and the Hubble Space telescope eventually revealed a total of 13 rings.

The planet's disk is almost entirely featureless, with its atmosphere composed mostly of water ice, methane, and ammonia, hydrogen, and helium, giving it a distinctive aquamarine or cyan color.

Use the image above to help spot the planet. After Sept. 19, the planet will rise and set with the same group of stars in the constellation Pisces, where it will remain for the next several years. However, the moon will rise later each night and shrink to a crescent, making naked-eye observation of the planet easier over the next two weeks. Spotting it may be more difficult for amateurs however, without the moon as a guide.

Good luck, and let us know in the comments section if you see it!

Click here to learn about our Saint Michael the Archangel conference this Nov 1-3!

Article brought to you by: Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)