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Were you wondering who discovered Uranus and when? Uranus is the first planet that was actually discovered in modern times. Although you can just barely see it with the unaided eye, it wasn’t discovered until March 13, 1781 by the German-born astronomer Sir Frederick William Herschel.
Herschel was working with a 7-foot long Newtonian telescope – these use curved mirrors to magnify – cataloging stars down to 8th magnitude. These are stars so dim that you can’t see them with the unaided eye, but they’re visible in a small telescope or good binoculars. During this survey he noticed that one star wasn’t point-like, but seemed to have a planet-like disk. He originally thought that it was a comet or nebula, but another astronomer calculated its motion and determined that it followed a planetary orbit around the Sun.
Since he was working in England at the time, with King George III as a patron, Herschel wanted to call the planet Georgian star, after the king. But the astronomical society had other ideas, and wanted to follow the tradition of naming planets after Roman gods. So it was named Uranus, after the father of Saturn and grandfather of Zeus.
Although Herschel was the first to properly recognize Uranus as a planet, it had been observed several times before. The English astronomer John Flamsteed had his observations of Uranus 6 times, but thought it was a star in the constellation of Taurus. And the French astronomer, Pierre Lemonnier, observed it at least 12 times – again thinking it was just a star.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast just about Uranus. Listen here, Episode 62: Uranus.