Tag Archives: Aries

NASA Night Sky Notes: Find Strange Uranus in Aries

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting by the Night Sky Network in October, 2019.

By David Prosper

Most of the planets in our solar system are bright and easily spotted in our night skies. The exceptions are the ice giant planets: Uranus and Neptune. These worlds are so distant and dim that binoculars or telescopes are almost always needed to see them. A great time to search for Uranus is during its opposition on October 28, since the planet is up almost the entire night and at its brightest for the year.

The bright three points of the Summer Triangle are among the first stars you can see after sunset: Deneb, Vega, and Altair.  The Summer Triangle is called an asterism, as it’s not an official constellation, but still a striking group of stars. However, the Triangle is the key to spotting multiple constellations! Its three stars are themselves the brightest in their respective constellations: Deneb, in Cygnus the Swan; Vega, in Lyra the Harp; and Altair, in Aquila the Eagle. That alone would be impressive, but the Summer Triangle also contains two small constellations inside its lines, Vulpecula the Fox and Sagitta the Arrow. There is even another small constellation just outside its borders: diminutive Delphinus the Dolphin. The Summer Triangle is huge!

Search for Uranus in the space beneath the stars of Aries the Ram and above Cetus the Whale. These constellations are found west of more prominent Taurus the Bull and Pleiades star cluster. You can also use the Moon as a guide! Uranus will be just a few degrees north of the Moon the night of October 14, close enough to fit both objects into the same binocular field of view.  However, it will be much easier to see dim Uranus by moving the bright Moon just out of sight. If you’re using a telescope, zoom in as much as possible once you find Uranus; 100x magnification and greater will reveal its small greenish disc, while background stars will remain points.

Try this observing trick from a dark sky location. Find Uranus with your telescope or binoculars, then look with your unaided eyes at the patch of sky where your equipment is aimed. Do you see a faint star where Uranus should be? That’s not a star; you’re actually seeing Uranus with your naked eye! The ice giant is just bright enough near opposition – magnitude 5.7 – to be visible to observers under clear dark skies. It’s easier to see this ghostly planet unaided after first using an instrument to spot it, sort of like “training wheels” for your eyes. Try this technique with other objects as you observe, and you’ll be amazed at what your eyes can pick out.

By the way, you’ve spotted the first planet discovered in the modern era! William Herschel discovered Uranus via telescope in 1781, and Johan Bode confirmed its status as a planet two years later. NASA’s Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to visit this strange world, with a brief flyby in 1986. It revealed a strange, severely tilted planetary system possessing faint dark rings, dozens of moons, and eerily featureless cloud tops. Subsequent observations of Uranus from powerful telescopes like Hubble and Keck showed its blank face was temporary, as powerful storms were spotted, caused by dramatic seasonal changes during its 84-year orbit. Uranus’s wildly variable seasons result from a massive collision billions of years ago that tipped the planet to its side.

Discover more about NASA’s current and future missions of exploration of the distant solar system and beyond at nasa.gov

The path of Uranus in October is indicated by an arrow; its position on October 14 is circled. The wide dashed circle approximates the field of view from binoculars or a finderscope. Image created with assistance from Stellarium.
Composite images taken of Uranus in 2012 and 2014 by the Hubble Space Telescope, showcasing its rings and auroras. More at bit.ly/uranusauroras  Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, L. Lamy / Observatoire de Paris

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

NASA Night Sky Notes for March 2019: Springtime Planet Party

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting by the Night Sky Network in March, 2019.

By David Prosper

March brings longer days for Northern Hemisphere observers, especially by the time of the equinox. Early risers are treated to the majority of the bright planets dancing in the morning skies, with the Moon passing between them at the beginning and end of the month.

The vernal equinox occurs on March 20, marking the official beginning of spring for the Northern Hemisphere. Our Sun shines equally on the Northern and Southern Hemispheres during the moment of equinox, which is why the March and September equinoxes are the only times of the year when the Earth’s north and south poles are simultaneously lit by sunlight. Exacting astronomers will note that the length of day and night on the equinox are not precisely equal; the date when they are closest to equal depends on your latitude, and may occur a few days earlier or later than the equinox itself. One complicating factor is that the Sun isn’t a point light source, but a disc. Its edge is refracted by our atmosphere as it rises and sets, which adds several minutes of light to every day. The Sun doesn’t neatly wink on and off at sunrise and sunset like a light bulb, and so there isn’t a perfect split of day and night on the equinox – but it’s very close!

Ruddy Mars still shines in the west after sunset. Mars scoots across the early evening skies from Aries towards Taurus and meets the sparkling Pleiades star cluster by month’s end.

March opens with the morning planets of Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus spread out over the southeastern horizon before sunrise. A crescent Moon comes very close to Saturn on the 1st and occults the ringed planet during the daytime. Lucky observers may be able to spot Mercury by the end of the month. March 31 opens with a beautiful set of planets and a crescent Moon strung diagonally across the early morning sky. Start with bright Jupiter, almost due south shortly before dawn. Then slide down and east towards Saturn, prominent but not nearly as bright as Jupiter. Continue east to the Moon, and then towards the beacon that is Venus, its gleam piercing through the early morning light. End with a challenge: can you find elusive Mercury above the eastern horizon? Binoculars may be needed to spot the closest planet to the Sun as it will be low and obscured by dawn’s encroaching glow. What a way to close out March!

Discover all of NASA’s current and future missions at nasa.gov


Earth from orbit on the March equinox, as viewed by EUMETSAT. Notice how the terminator – the line between day and night – touches both the north and south poles. Additional information can be found at http://bit.ly/earthequinox Image credit: NASA/Robert Simmo  

The morning planets on March 31. Image created with assistance from Stellarium

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!