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 2023?
- Shines at its brightest: October 11 to December 17
- Magnitude range: +5.7 to +5.9 (dimmest)
- Evening sky: January 1 to April 23, and November 13 till end of year
- Morning sky: May 27 to November 12
- All Night: November and December
- Opposition Date: November 13, 2023
Uranus alternates between being a morning and evening planet in 2023. It starts off the year as an evening guest until end of April, spends the year until mid-November in the morning sky before returning to evening skies for the rest of the year.
At its opposition on November 13, 2023, the ice giant rises at sunset and sets at sunrise (opposite to the Sun). For this reason, it will be visible for much of the night, given clear dark skies.
All throughout, you can spot Uranus with a simple binoculars because it will be shining its brightest between October 11 and December 17, the weeks around its opposition. A small telescope will reveal its greenish disc too.
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 (Aries the Ram) throughout 2023.
The image below, from SkySafari 6, shows where it is at opposition on 13 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 as shown in the chart above.
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.