The evening sky is offering a great chance to see something you’ve probably never seen before: the giant planet Uranus. The next few evenings it’s quite close to Venus, the “evening star.” It’s much fainter than Venus, but binoculars will help you find it.
Uranus is the third-largest planet in the solar system — a ball of rock, ice, and gas that’s about four times the diameter of Earth.
But it’s about 20 times farther from the Sun than Earth is. At that distance, the planet receives a tiny fraction as much sunlight as Earth does, and it reflects only a tiny amount back our way. So at its brightest, it’s just barely visible to the unaided eye — but only to those who have dark skies and really good eyesight. Most of us need help to find it — binoculars or a telescope.
And it doesn’t hurt to have a bright signpost to point the way — like Venus. The radiant planet is well up in the western sky at nightfall, and outshines everything else in the night sky except the Moon.
This evening, Uranus stands about a degree-and-a-half to the upper left of Venus — about the width of a finger at arm’s length. Tomorrow evening, though, the pairing will be even better — Uranus will be just about half a degree to the left of Venus, so both worlds will be in the same binocular field of view. Uranus will look like a faint star, with perhaps a hint of blue-green. It’s the brightest object in that area other than Venus, so it should stand out.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.