How to See Uranus Through a Telescope

Have you located the five visible planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, and are ready to take on more challenging ones?

Uranus and Neptune are extremely faint and are often eliminated from the to-do lists of many amateur astronomers, but they present excellent challenges to visual observers.

Spotting them with telescopes isn’t hard if you know where to look. This guide will help you in navigating the night sky to spot Uranus.

Finding Uranus in the Night Sky

The only planet named after a Greek God, Uranus orbits the sun once every 84 Earth years. With an unusual axial tilt of 98 degrees, Uranus practically spins on its side. The Equator was last seen face-on in December 2007, and the south pole will be seen in 2030.

Photograph of Uranus taken by Voyager 2 in 1986. No features are visible on the blue cloud tops.
The featureless surface of Uranus captured by Voyager 2 in 1986

Uranus Visibility in 2019

Uranus began the first few days of 2019 in Pisces but, by the end of February, it had crossed over to Aries, the Ram, where it will remain for the rest of the year.

  • Shines at its brightest from August 21 – December 31
  • magnitude+5.7
  • Morning sky (an hour before sunrise) – June to September
  • All Night – October
  • Evening sky November and December
  • Opposition Date – October 28, 2019, at 08:02 UT

Is Uranus Visible in the Night Sky Tonight?

Uranus orbits the sun at nineteen times the distance from of Earth, so it is no wonder that it is tough to spot with a naked eye. But, it is just about possible with the right conditions when you know where to look. You will need absolute darkness, the clearest sky possible, and loads of patience to locate it.

While it currently resides in the constellation Pisces, do not use this dim constellation to locate Uranus. Instead, start with the Great Square of Pegasus – the large square of stars that shine with equal brightness.

Screen grab from Sky Safari 6 showing the Great Square of Pegasus
The Great Square of Pegasus asterism (Sky Safari 6)

To help find it, first locate the unmistakable ‘W’ of Cassiopeia, one of the constellations that are visible all night long. Draw an imaginary line from Polaris (the Pole Star) to Caph (see diagram below). Next, double the length of the line and it will point to Alpheratz, which marks one corner of the Great Square.

Two steps from Polaris to Cassiopeia and then to Great Square
Stepping from Polaris the The Great Square (click to enlarge)

Now you have Alpheratz, use two other stars forming the Great Square, Markab and Algenib to get you to Uranus.

Set off from Markab in the direction of Algenib. Now, extend that line a further 1.5 times and it will end at Uranus.

When you’re in the right spot, it’s time to point your telescope and glimpse the blue-green disc.

Two steps to find Uranus from the Great Square of Pegasus
Find Uranus from the Great Square (click for full size)

Finding Uranus With a Small Telescope

The first step to spotting a planet is to make sure that it is above the horizon and relatively high up in the sky. We recommend downloading Stellarium (which is free) or Sky Safari, which is paid. Both of these let you put in your observation time and date to see which planets are visible.

For easy reckoning though, Uranus’ orbit takes it close to the sun until mid-May making it difficult to see.

From June, you’ll catch the best views low on the eastern horizon an hour before sunrise. By the end of July, the situation is much better. If you’re prepared to be outside at 2am, you’ll be rewarded with great Uranus-viewing about 20° above the eastern horizon.

For the rest of the year, things improve further. In October, Uranus reaches opposition – which is when it is directly opposite the sun from our perspective – meaning it’s visible all night long. It is highest in the sky around midnight, when it will be more than 60° above the southern horizon.

As the year closes out, Uranus becomes an evening planet. In December 2019, you’ll find it over 40° above the southeast horizon at 8pm.

What Does Uranus Look Like Through a Telescope?

If you spot Uranus without any optical aid, you will see a star, similar to many others around it, i.e. there is little to distinguish it as a planet.

However, using even a small telescope at a magnification of 100x or higher will show you the star has a blue-green hue. This color is due to the abundance of methane on the planet.

Swap up your magnification to 200x and your telescope will reveal that this is not a point of light like a star, but a disc. This is your first confirmation that you are looking at a planet.  

Sadly, there are no surface features apparent with small telescopes, but just seeing the planet is a bigger achievement that many backyard astronomers can claim.

Can You Spot Uranus’ Moons?

There is one feature of this icy planet that you can try and see with the right equipment: the two brightest moons.

You need at least an 8-inch objective to stand any chance of seeing Uranus’ brightest moons. In this context, ‘brightness’ is relative because Uranian moons are small and dark. The brightest include Oberon at magnitude 14.1 and Ariel at magnitude 14.4. Both of these will test an 8″ scope.

To detect its other moons, you will need a bigger aperture and wonderful seeing so that you can max out magnification.

If you want to have a go at seeing Uranian moons, use Sky & Telescope’s moons of Uranus observing tool to locate them.

When you’ve discovered Uranus for yourself, why not try spotting the more difficult Neptune?

Questions About Uranus

Uranus is an enigmatic, distant world that naturally makes us astronomers curious. In this FAQ section, we answer some of the most common questions about the planet.

How Many Moons Does Uranus Have?

Uranus has 27 known and named moons altogether. Some of the brightest we looked at above, but the biggest is called Titania. Along with Oberon, it was the first to be discovered by William Herschel back in 1787.

The five biggest moons are Titania, Umbriel, Ariel, Oberon and Miranda. Titania’s 1,578km diameter makes it the 8th largest in the solar system. (You can compare them to Saturn’s moons in this article.)

Interestingly, all the Uranian moons are named either from Shakespeare plays or from a poem by Alexander Pope.

How Do You Pronounce Uranus?

If any planet is guaranteed to always the ‘butt’ of a good, it’s Uranus. There are conflicting options for how to say its name but, to avoid any blushes, we stick to stick to YER-un-uss.

How Far Away is Uranus?

Uranus orbits the sun at a distance of between 18.3 and 20.1AU (astronomical units). Since the orbit of Earth defines an astronomical unit (93 million miles, approximately) we can see that Uranus is 18 to 20 times further from the sun than we are, or 1,674,000,000 miles to 1,860,000,000 miles from the sun.

How Long to Travel to Uranus?

It took the second Voyager craft 8.5 years from blast off to its fly-by of Uranus in 1986. We’d have to guess this is unchanged as there have been no other investigations of the planet and none are planned.

What is Uranus Made Of?

Although it’s 4x the size of Earth, Uranus is the second least dense planet after saturn. This suggests it is made primarily of ices. We know from study that these are chiefly ammonia, water and methane.

It’s believed the ices surround a small, rocky core and that, outside of those is a layer of hydrogen and helium gas.

Does Uranus Have Rings?

It actually does! There are 13 known rings around Uranus, mostly very fine but two of them are thicker. None is visible through a standard Earth-bound telescope.

How Long is A Day and Year on Uranus?

The further a planet is from the sun, the longer its year – which is just a measure of how long it takes to complete a single solar orbit.

Uranus completes the orbit in 84 years. The average human life expectancy in the western world world is just one Uranian year!

A day is measured by the time it takes for a planet to rotate once on its axis. Unlike its year, the Uranian day is much shorter than an Earth one, measuring a little over 17 hours.

Written By Sharmila Kuthunur