Stalking Uranus: A Complete Guide to the 2014 Opposition Season

It’s no joke… now is the time to begin searching the much-maligned (and mispronounced) planet Uranus as it reaches opposition in early October leading up to a very special celestial event.

Last month, we looked at the challenges of spying the solar system’s outermost ice giant world, Neptune. Currently located in the adjacent constellation Aquarius, Neptune is now 39 degrees from Uranus and widening. The two worlds had a close conjunction of just over one degree of separation in late 1993, and only long time observers of the distant worlds remember a time waaaay back in the early-1970s where the two worlds appeared farther apart than 2014 as seen from our Earthly vantage point.

Uranus rising to the east the evening of October 7th, just prior to the start of the October 8th lunar eclipse later the same evening. Created  using Stellarium.

In 2014, opposition occurs at 21:00 Universal Time (UT)/5:00 PM EDT on October 7th. If this date sounds familiar, it’s because Full Moon and the second total lunar eclipse of 2014 and the ongoing lunar tetrad of eclipses occurs less than 24 hours afterwards. This puts Uranus extremely close to the eclipsed Moon, and a remote slice of the high Arctic will actually see the Moon occult (pass in front of) Uranus during totality. Such a coincidence is extremely rare: the last time the Moon occulted a naked eye planet during totality occurred back during Shakespearian times in 1591, when Saturn was covered by the eclipsed Moon. This close conjunction as seen from English soil possibly by the bard himself was mentioned in David Levy’s book and doctoral thesis The Sky in Early Modern English Literature, and a similar event involving Saturn occurs in 2344 AD.

The footprint of the October 8th occultation of Uranus. Credit: Occult 4.1.

We’re also in a cycle of occultations of Uranus in 2014, as the speedy Moon slides in front of the slow moving world every lunation until December 2015. Oppositions of Uranus — actually pronounced “YOOR-un-us” so as not to rhyme with a bodily orifice — currently occur in the month of September and move forward across our calendar by about 4 days a year.

Uranus (lower left) near the limb of the gibbous Moon of September 11th, 2014. Credit: Roger Hutchinson.

This year sees Uranus in the astronomical constellation Pisces just south of the March equinoctial point. Uranus is moving towards and will pass within a degree of the +5.7 magnitude star 96 Piscium in late October through early November. Shining at magnitude +5.7 through the opposition season, Uranus presents a disk 3.7” in size at the telescope. You can get a positive ID on the planet by patiently sweeping the field of view: Uranus is the tiny blue-green “dot” that, unlike a star, refuses to come into a pinpoint focus.

The apparent path of Uranus from September 2014 through January 2015 across the constellation Pisces. The inset shows the tilt and orbit of its major moons across a 2′ field of view. Created by the author using Starry Night Education software.

Uranus also presents us with one of the key mysteries of the solar system. Namely, what’s up with its 97.8 degree rotational tilt? Clearly, the world sustained a major blow sometime in the solar system’s early history. In 2014, we’re viewing the world at about a 28 degree tilt and widening. This will continue until we’re looking straight at the south pole of Uranus in early 2030s. Of course, “south” and “north” are pretty arbitrary when you’re knocked back over 90 degrees on your axis! And while we enjoy the September Equinox next week on September 23rd, the last equinox for any would-be “Uranians” occurred on December 16th, 2007. This put the orbit of its moons edge-on from our point of view from 2006-2009 for only the third time since discovery of the planet in 1781. This won’t occur again until around 2049. Uranus also passed aphelion in 2009, which means it’s still at the farther end of its 19.1 to 17.3 astronomical unit (A.U.) range from the Sun in its 84 year orbit.

The moons of Uranus and Neptune as imaged during the 2011 opposition season. Credit: Rolf Wahl Olsen, used with permission.
The moons of Uranus and Neptune as imaged during the 2011 opposition season. Credit: Rolf Wahl Olsen, used with permission.

And as often as Uranus ends up as the butt (bad pun) of many a scatological punch line, we can at least be glad that the world didn’t get named Georgium Sidus (Latin for “George’s Star”) after William Herschel’s benefactor, King George the III. Yes, this was a serious proposal (!). Herschel initially thought he’d found a comet upon spying Uranus, until he realized its slow motion implied a large object orbiting far out in the solar system.

A replica... Credit:
A replica of the reflecting telescope that Herschel used to discover Uranus. Credit: Alun Salt/Wikimedia Commons image under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 license.

Spurious sightings of Uranus actually crop up on star maps prior to Herschel’s time, and in theory, it hovers juuusst above naked eye visibility near opposition as seen from a dark sky site… can you pick out Uranus without optical assistance during totality next month? Hershel and Lassell also made claims of spotting early ring systems around both Uranus and Neptune, though the true discovery of a tenuous ring system of Uranus was made by the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (a forerunner of SOFIA) during an occultation of a background star in 1977.

Credit: Ed Kotapish
A corkscrew chart for the moons of Uranus through October. Credit: Ed Kotapish/Rings PDS node.

Looking for something more? Owners of large light buckets can capture and even image (see above) 5 of the 27 known moons of Uranus. We charted the orbital elongations for favorable apparitions through October 2014 (to the left). Check out last year’s chart for magnitudes, periods, and maximum separations for each respective moon. An occulting bar eyepiece may help you in your quest to cut down the ‘glare’ of nearby Uranus.

When will we return to Uranus? Thus far, humanity has explored the world up close exactly once, when Voyager 2 passed by in 1986. A possible “Uranus Probe” (perhaps, Uranus Orbiter is a better term) similar to Cassini has been an on- and off- proposal over the years, though it’d be a tough sell in the current era of ever dwindling budgets. Plutonium, a mandatory power source for deep space missions, is also in short supply. Such a mission might take up to a decade to enter orbit around Uranus, and would represent the farthest orbital reconnaissance of a world in our solar system. Speedy New Horizons is just whizzing by Pluto next July.

All great thoughts to ponder as you scour the skies for Uranus in the coming weeks!

Uranus: A Guide to its 2013 Opposition

Up for a challenge? Got a big 12” light bucket of a Dobsonian telescope and looking for something new to point it at? This week, as the Moon reaches New phase on October 4th and stays safely out of the late evening sky, why not check out Uranus and its retinue of moons. And yes, we’ve heard just about ALL the Uranus jokes —its pronounced yer-in-us, thank you very much — but feel free to attempt to pen an original if you must.

Now, back to astronomy. Uranus reaches opposition for 2013  on Thursday, October 3rd at 14:00 Universal Time. Opposition is the point in time that an outer planet rises as the Sun sets. In the case of Uranus, its opposition dates advance forward by about 4-5 days each year.

The current location of Uranus in Pisces. Created by the author using Stellarium. (click to enlarge).

This also marks the start of the best time to hunt for the planet among the star fields of the constellation Pisces. Uranus will reach its maximum elevation above the southern horizon for northern hemisphere viewers for early October around local midnight. For observers south of the equator, Uranus will transit to the north. Incidentally, Uranus also currently sits near the equinoctial point occupied by the Sun during the March equinox, making viewing opportunities nearly equal for both hemispheres.

Uranus is 19.04 astronomical units distant during opposition 2013, or about 158 light minutes away. Shining at magnitude +5.8, Uranus presents a tiny blue-green disk just under 4” across at opposition.

Uranus currently lies six degrees SW of the +4.4 magnitude star Delta Piscium, on the border of the constellations Pisces and Cetus. Uranus will actually be crossing once again into the non-zodiacal constellation of Cetus later this year.

Discovered in 1781 by Sir William Herschel, Uranus has only completed 2 full orbits (2.75 to be precise) in its 84.3 year trips about the Sun. We can be thankful that William’s proposal to name the planet Geogium Sidus after his benefactor King George the III didn’t stick!

Starry Night Education
The path of Uranus into Cetus. Created by the author using Starry Night Education software.

At opposition, Uranus will be located at;

Right Ascension: 0h 40’

Declination: +3° 25’

Five of the 27 known moons of Uranus are also within the grasp of a moderate-sized backyard scope as well. The trick is to catch ‘em near greatest elongation, when they appear farthest from the “glare of Uranus” (hey, there’s a freebie for a snicker or two). An eyepiece equipped with an occulting bar, or simply nudging Uranus out of the field of view can also help.

With magnitudes ranging from +13 to +16, the moons of Uranus are similar in brightness to Neptune’s large moon Triton or the tiny world Pluto.

The five brightest moons of Uranus and their respective maximum elongations are:

Chart constructed by author.

And here’s a handy finder chart for the coming month, showing maximum elongations for each:

A corkscrew graph featuring the greatest elongations for the five brightest moons of Uranus. (Created by Ed Kotapish using PDS Rings Node).
A corkscrew graph featuring the greatest elongations for the five brightest moons of Uranus through October. (Created by Ed Kotapish using PDS Rings Node).

The first two moons were named Titania and Oberon by William’s son John after characters from William Shakespeare’s A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream. William discovered the first two moons of Uranus on the night of January 11th, 1787 using his 49.5” reflector. His scopes were so advanced for his day, that it wasn’t until over a half a century later that William Lassell discovered Umbriel and Ariel using the Liverpool Observatory’s 24” reflector in 1851.

Gerard Kuiper would later add tiny Miranda to the list, nabbing it with the McDonald Observatory’s 82” Otto Struve Telescope in 1948. We would then have to wait until Voyager 2’s 1986 flyby of Uranus in 1986 to add more. To date, Voyager 2 remains the only spacecraft to visit Uranus and Neptune.

The current convention established by the International Astronomical Union is to name the moons of Uranus after characters from the plays of Shakespeare or Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock.

There’s still a wide range of names in said literature to choose from!

It’s interesting to note that the orbits of the moons of Uranus are also currently tipped open about 25 degrees to our line of sight and widening. They were edge on in December 2007, and will be perpendicular to our Earthly view come 2029, after which they’ll head back to edge on in 2049. This is because Uranus and the orbits of its moons are tipped at a 97 degree angle relative to the planet’s orbit. This is why elongations for its moons are often quoted it terms of “north and south” of the planet, rather than the familiar east and west. Shadow transits of the moons can occur with about a year and a half during plane-crossing seasons, but they’re ~42 years apart and tough to spot on the tiny disk of Uranus!

October 4th Starry Night Education
An example of the orientation of Uranus’s moons on October 4th, with Oberon at greatest elongation. Note that Miranda is the tiny unlabeled moon with the interior orbit. (Created by the author using Starry Night Education software).

Uranus also reached aphelion in 2009 at 20.099 AU from the Sun —we’re still at the farther end of the spectrum, as oppositions of Uranus can range from 19.09 to 17.28 AU distant.

Uranus will rise earlier on each successive evening until it reaches quadrature at the end of the year on December 30th. At this point, it’ll be roughly due south at local sunset. Keep in mind, there’s also another ice giant worth hunting for in the adjacent constellation of Aquarius named Neptune.

So ignore those bad puns, and be sure to take out that 10” (scope, that is) and point it at Uranus!