How to find Uranus and what you’ll see

The next few months offer a great chance to find Uranus in the night sky, the first of the planets to be discovered. The inner worlds were known since ancient times due to their brightness, but Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun, was overlooked because it is much fainter.

Where to find Uranus in the night sky
This chart shows how Uranus lies between the two strands of Pisces, the fish, in October, 2016. Image credit: Skymania, using Stellarium

The great astronomer William Herschel first spotted it in 1781 from his back garden in Bath, England, while observing double stars with his telescope. But Uranus is bright enough to be seen in the smallest pair of binoculars. And it can theoretically be seen without any optical aid if you have clear dark skies because it is just above the limit of naked-eye visibility.

October 2016 is a good month to look for Uranus because it reaches Opposition on the 15th, meaning it lies in the opposite side of the heavens to the Sun and so may be seen in a dark sky throughout the night. Along with outer planet Neptune, Uranus is one of the so-called ice giants.

Our main picture shows the region of sky to the East in early evening as Uranus is rising in the sky. To find Uranus, look for the string of stars marking Andromeda which lead into the Great Square of Pegasus, the bottom of which is show standing on its corner.

Beneath these constellations, and to the right of the familiar three-star asterism in Aries, lies the constellation of Pisces, the fishes, which is made up of generally faint stars. But in a clear, dark sky, it is possible to see that they make up a pattern with two diverging strands. In mid-October, Uranus may be found between these two strands as indicated.

On the nights of the 13th and 14th of October, the near-full moon will lie close by, but it has been removed from the chart.

Detailed chart to help find Uranus in the night sky
Stars visible in the immediate area around Uranus on the night of opposition, 15 October. The field of view is about 8 degrees wide. Watch Uranus’s position gradually change over the nights. Image credit: Skymania, using Stellarium.

Once you find Uranus in the night sky, it will appear obvious in binoculars or a small telescope. But what will you see? Well, with binoculars, just a bright star really, and its blue-green hue may be apparent. A small telescope with a reasonable magnification, say 200x, will reveal that, unlike a star, it shows a tiny disk.

Don’t expect to see any of Uranus’s moons with a small telescope. You really need at least a 20cm (8in) reflector to pick out the brightest two, Oberon and Miranda. But at least Uranus itself is easy to see!

Doing the next few months, Uranus will continue to be well placed for seeking out in the evening sky. Remember to invert our chart if you are trying to find it from southern latitudes.

Uranus is famous for being extremely windy and the coldest world in the Solar System. Planetary astronomers have been urging space agencies to send a mission to probe Uranus and discover its secrets.

Read more about Uranus here.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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