Ancient astronomers knew of five “wanderers” in the sky. These five planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – are all very bright, and, obviously, they move with respect to the “fixed” background stars.
Then in 1781, William Herschel discovered every elementary school child’s favorite planet. Yes, Herschel saw Uranus through a telescope. By the way, even though most scientists accent the first syllable, placing the accent on the long A in the middle isn’t wrong.
Because of its dimness and very slow movement with respect to the background stars, the seventh planet had just never been noticed before. Herschel originally thought he had found a comet, but the lack of a tail and the relatively circular orbit readily convinced everyone that this was indeed a new planet.
It turns out that Uranus is easily visible to the naked eye – at least from a dark location when your eyes are well-adjusted to the dark. It has a magnitude of 5.7, which is very dim, but at least twice as bright as the dimmest stars that most people can see.
Because it is so dim, the challenge in seeing it is to know which of the faint points in the sky is really that planet. A detailed star chart, or numerous software packages, can help you find and identify it.
October is special astronomically because it has not just one, but two eclipses that you will be able to see if the weather cooperates. The orbit of the moon is tilted by over 5 degrees to the ecliptic (the path of the sun) so most of the time the alignment is wrong for a new moon or a full moon to result in an eclipse. But about every six months, the moon will be crossing the ecliptic at its new or full phase and this results in an eclipse.
In mid-afternoon Oct. 28, we will be treated to a partial solar eclipse. The new moon will be covering about half the sun. It will begin crossing the face of the sun at about 3:20 p.m. local time, and the eclipse will be over by 5:45 p.m. Remember, don’t look at the sun directly without appropriate eye protection.
If you missed the total lunar eclipse last April, there will be another one Oct. 8. This one happens just before dawn, so the moon will be in the western sky in the constellation Pisces. The partial eclipse starts at 2:15 a.m. and the total lunar eclipse will last for just under an hour, between 3:25 and 4:24 a.m.
As a bonus during totality, the seventh planet will be really close – about 1 degree to the south (in this case, to the left) of the moon. That is about one finger width when held at arms length.
So Oct. 8, when the moon moves to where the sun don’t shine, maybe we can all go outside and see Uranus.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Charles Hakes is an assistant professor in the physics and engineering department at Fort Lewis College and is director of the Fort Lewis Observatory.