George is on the rise

How would you like a look at the third-largest planet in our solar system? This planet is at its closest approach to Earth this October, but it’s still more than 1.7 billion miles away. That’s so far away that it takes more than two-and-a- half hours for the light from George to reach our eyes in southwestern Minnesota.

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself stargazing in the countryside over the next several weeks you may see George with the naked eye, but more likely no matter where you’re viewing from you’ll probably need binoculars or a small telescope. George will be a tough target rising in the low early evening skies, nestled in the large and faint constellation Pisces the Fish.

Before you think I’ve lost all my celestial marbles, there truly is a planet George, but you know it by another name — Uranus. George was the original name given to the planet in 1781 by the Englishman Sir William Herschel, a very talented musician and an amateur astronomer. At the time Herschel was searching the heavens for comets, and he thought he had found a new one. Comets, then and now, are named after their discoverer, but Sir William chose to kiss up to the current King of England and name it “George.” Using his observations Sir William calculated the orbit and distance of what he thought was comet George and eventually came to the conclusion that George was actually a planet. So George became the seventh planet out from the sun, circling our home star every 84 years.

There wasn’t any Twitter or Facebook back then, but nonetheless the word spread rapidly about planet George. While astronomers were thrilled with the new discovery they hated the name, especially outside of the British Empire. A movement grew to rename the planet “Herschel” instead of George, crediting Sir William. But that didn’t sit well either. It was eventually agreed that the new planet should be given the moniker of one of the ancient Greek or Roman gods, as it was with all of the other planets visible from Earth. After further debate astronomers settled on the name Uranus, the Greek god of heavenly bodies. I have to admit, though, that I kind of like the name George!

For sure Uranus, or George if you prefer, will be a challenge to find, but it’s doable even in light polluted night skies. As I said before, Uranus is visible in the low eastern skies in the constellation Pisces the Fish. Forget about locating Pisces. It’s just too faint. Instead I suggest you use the nearby small but distinct constellation Aries the Ram. The brightest three stars form what looks like the horn of a ram.

For the next several weeks the stars Sheratan and Mesarthim, on the right end of the horn, will be “pointing” at Uranus. George will be about 10 degrees to the lower right of Mesarthim. Ten degrees is about the width of your clenched fist held at arm’s length. Scan that area with binoculars or a small telescope for a bluish-green dot. That’s it! You’ve made your own discovery of Uranus. As far as I’m concerned you can give it your name, at least as a nickname!

CELESTIAL HUGGING THIS WEEK: The planets Venus, Mars, and the waning crescent moon are still in a very close celestial conjunction in the low eastern sky during early morning twilight. The two planets are only five degrees apart, or about half the width of your clenched fist at arm’s length. Venus, the brighter of the two, is about 145 million miles from Earth, and Mars is much farther away at nearly 233 million miles. Next year, though, in late July, Mars and Earth will only be separated by just under 36 million miles, the closest Mars has been to Earth since 2003!

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul and is author of the book, “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications available at bookstores at http://www.adventurepublications.net.

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