Thursday, June 21 , 2018, 1:59 pm | Mostly Cloudy 68º


Dennis Mammana: By George, Here’s How You Can Find the 6th Planet

Find the sixth planet after dark this week. Click to view larger
Find the sixth planet after dark this week. ( illustration)

From the beginning of time till the year 1781, only five planets were known to wander the heavens. Then everything changed. The astronomical community was stunned when musical composer and amateur astronomer William Herschel announced his discovery of a new planet.

In an attempt to impress then-King George III of England and, hopefully, get some money out of him for his astronomical pursuits, Herschel suggested naming the new world Georgium Sidus, or “George’s Star.”

Now, having a planet named George made as little sense then as it does today. So, thankfully, more sensible monikers were proposed. Some even suggested naming it after Herschel himself.

Eventually, astronomers agreed that the new world should be named after Ouranos, the mythological father of the Titans and grandfather of Jupiter. This, they argued, would match the classical origins of other planetary names.

While the designation was official, it did not come into common use until nearly seven decades later. Today, we know it as Uranus. And in case you’re wondering, the proper pronunciation of the world’s name is YOU-rah-nus.

Uranus is typically visible only with binoculars or a small telescope, but at times it enters the realm of naked-eye visibility for stargazers with excellent vision and a clear, dark sky far from city lights.

The next couple of weeks will be great to do so because the planet reaches its opposition point to the sun on Oct. 19. This means it'll be at its closest and brightest — a perfect time to get yourself far from city lights to search for this elusive planet.

Finding Uranus takes some patience, but it’s not too tough. After dark this week, look for the Great Square of Pegasus midway up in the eastern sky. Below appear two nearly vertical strings of faint stars that mark the constellation of Pisces, the fishes.

Aim binoculars toward the star Omicron Piscium and you’ll spot the planet Uranus as a bluish green “star” not far above and to its right — at about the 1 o’clock position. It will appear almost as bright as Omicron Piscium. Aim a small telescope in its direction and you’ll see it as a tiny disk with a distinctly blue-green color.

Once you know exactly which dot of light is Uranus and can identify the stars around it, try searching for it with your eyes alone. If you’ve got a very dark sky and good vision, you may surprised at how easy it is!

Now, if Uranus is so simple to spot with the unaided eye, why didn’t the ancients do so? And if they had, how might that have changed history?

After all, the five visible planets (plus the sun and moon) lent importance to the number seven, and we see it everywhere: There are seven days of the week, seven rungs of perfection, seven emblems of the Buddha, seven gates of Thebes, Seven Wonders of the World and so on.

So, it’s only natural to wonder how things might be different had there been eight significant bodies that traveled the heavens. It’s only by chance that there aren’t.

Just a little something to ponder as you’re stargazing this week.

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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