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 (all of the others are named for Roman gods), Uranus orbits the sun once every 84 Earth years.
Unusually, Uranus has an axial tilt of 98 degrees, meaning that it practically spins on its side. The Equator was last seen face-on in December 2007, and the south pole will be seen in 2030.
Is Planet Uranus Visible Tonight in 2021?
- Shines at its brightest: Early January, and late August to year-end
- Magnitude range: +5.7 to +5.9 (dimmest)
- Evening sky: January – March, December
- Not visible: April – June
- Morning sky: July – September
- All Night: October and November
- Opposition Date: November 04, 2021
Uranus is as bright as it gets at the start of 2021 but, by the end of January, it has faded a little to magnitude 5.8. Its disc is 3.6 arcseconds wide, which barely changes throughout the year.
We can see Uranus once dusk gives way to night for the first three months of the year. After that, the planet gets too close to the Sun to be visible in spring, only reappearing in the pre-dawn skies of late June.
As summer progresses, Uranus moves higher and higher in the dark morning skies as it heads towards opposition and its closest approach on 04 November. For all of October and November, Uranus can be seen all night long.
As December 2021 ticks around, Uranus is firmly an evening object, reaching its highest in the sky around 8pm.
Where to Find Planet Uranus
Uranus orbits the sun at nineteen times the distance from 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.
Thankfully, its vast distance means it only moves slowly across the night sky, so it can be found in the same small patch throughout 2021.
The image below, from SkySafari 6, shows where it is at opposition on 04 November this year. The stars are shown to magnitude 5.0 and you can see Uranus midway between the horizon and zenith at 10pm. The planet is nestled between the constellations of Pisces, Cetus, and Aries.
However, you don’t need to look for Uranus on just this one night. Whenever Aries is in the night sky, Uranus will be in approximately the same place.
This is not a part of the sky with great pointer stars for star hopping, but we can get to the right place with a little help from the Pleiades and Taurus. These show us the way to the head of Cetus, Uranus is in the patch of sky about 5° north of that. Click on the diagram below to find your way there.
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. You’ll also have a very dark sky because Uranus is only just bright enough to be seen with the naked eye; any level of light pollution will stop you from seeing it.
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 than 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 two are called Oberon, which shines at magnitude 14.1, and Ariel, which is magnitude 14.4. Both of these will test an 8″ telescope.
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?
More on Uranus…
If you have a desire to learn more about Neptune, check out our article Uranus: All you need to know for fascinating information about the planet.
Written By Sharmila Kuthunur