God of the sky

God of the sky
  • Uranus was thought of as just another star before Sir William Herschel's observation in 1781

Uranus is just about visible to the naked eye under perfect conditions but had always been thought of as just another star. It was not until 1781 that the English astronomer Sir William Herschel observed it through his telescope and recognised it as a planet. Debate raged for many years over naming of the new planet, Herschel wanted to name it after King George III but this was unpopular with many countries especially France and America who were at war with Britain. Eventually the name Uranus was suggested after the Greek God of the sky and the father of Saturn.

Uranus is the third largest planet in the Solar System, only Jupiter and Saturn are bigger. Like Jupiter and Saturn, Uranus is a gas giant being made up mostly from hydrogen and helium gas. While all the other planets have a small tilt in relation to the plane of their orbits, Uranus is tilted right over onto its side and rolls around the Sun. So for half of its 84 year orbit the North Pole is pointed toward the Sun whilst the South Pole is in permanent darkness. Then for the second half of its orbit the situation is reversed.

Uranus is about 20 times the distance of the Earth to the Sun and even through the most powerful of telescopes very little can be seen of the surface. Virtually everything we know about it comes from the space probe Voyager 2 that flew past the planet in 1986. Voyager 2 told us that Uranus has at least 27 moons and also has a very faint ring system similar to Saturn's.

Uranus is very faint but on 26th February it will be very close to the planet Mars and easy to find. Look toward the West shortly after sunset and spot Venus shining brightly. Slightly above and a little to the left you will see Mars, its distinct red colour makes it easy to spot. Now using binoculars, Uranus will be in the same field of view just to the left of Mars and a distinct turquoise in colour.