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Uranus at Opposition

October 11, 2015

In the spring of 1781, William Herschel did something that no one else had ever done: He discovered a planet. But deciding what to call it proved more challenging than the discovery. It took decades for the world’s astronomers to agree on a name: Uranus, after a Greek sky god.

Herschel’s discovery is putting in its best showing of the year right now. It rises at sunset, is in the sky all night, and is brightest for the year. In fact, under dark skies, those with keen vision might just make out the planet with the unaided eye.

It’s likely that many skywatchers saw Uranus before Herschel’s discovery. It’s so faint, though, that no one thought of it as anything other than a star.

By the time Herschel’s discovery had been confirmed, the debate about the planet’s name was well under way. Herschel suggested “George’s Star,” to honor King George the Third of England. Astronomers in the rest of the world were underwhelmed by the name, so they ignored it.

A French astronomer suggested naming the planet for Herschel, but that idea also languished.

Finally, Johann Bode suggested “Uranus.” It maintained the pattern of naming planets for the gods of Greece and Rome. And it seemed a natural progression: Uranus was the father of Saturn and the grandfather of Jupiter, the next planets inward.

Still, the issue lingered until 1850, when Britain’s Nautical Almanac Office abandoned “George’s Star” — and “Uranus” took its place among the planets of the solar system.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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