Note: I hope to update this piece when I catch Uranus at the turning point, August 2018. As of right now we are in thunderstorms, so it may take a while.
Okay Let’s Cut to the Chase
Here is an animated GIF of two astrophotographs I took of the planet Uranus from my house in Virgin, Utah. The first one was taken on October 24, 2017 around 2:00 am, the next on November 19,2017 at 10pm (click on the image for full-size animated versions). See if you can spot Uranus. In the course of that month it has moved a bit, near the center of the image, so you should be able to see a blue-green dot jumping back and forth.
In addition to the dated labels, I have put in some graphics showing the constellation Pisces, as well as a chart, showing where computer models say Uranus should be in that part of the sky, for various dates between 2016 and 2020. I had to pull all of these other things in, just to convince myself that I really caught the planet, and not just a random earth satellite or other transient object.
It has taken me quite a bit of work to get to this final product, of which I am quite proud, and happy that it came out so cleanly, riding exactly along those predicted lines. In August of 2018 (now) I hope to capture that endpoint of maximum extent. The rest of this blog piece is the retelling of the story of this image, along with the occasional digressions into the geometry of the whole thing.
About the Planet Uranus
Here is a picture of the planet Uranus, taken by the Voyager II spacecraft in 1986.
By the time I came to work at the NASA Jet Propulsion labs in ’87 the Voyager II probe had already passed by Uranus and was approaching Neptune, so I never got a chance to see these “live” images coming in. It’s not much to look at, and is best described as a large ice ball (unlike Saturn or Jupiter which are mostly gaseous). Even with a really good earthbound 8″ telescope, you’re not going to see much more than a fuzzy dot.
Though it had been seen before (even in ancient times), the object was not identified as a planet until it was observed and reported by William Herschel in 1781, who thought it might be a comet. However, after reporting it to the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne (who figures prominently in the quest to measure Longitude), Maskelyne concluded that it was probably a planet.
Other than its name (being the only one in the solar system based on the original Greek gods, and not the later Latin names of the Roman gods), Uranus is notable for having its rotational axis nearly horizontal to the orbital plane, so that for half the Uranian year (about 45 earth years) the “north” pole is in perpetual day, and the other half the year is perpetual night.
Uranus in Opposition
What started all this for me was the announcement last month that the planet Uranus was in what they call “opposition“, meaning that it was on the opposite side of the celestial sphere (as seen from Earth) as the Sun. From the Sun’s perspective, this means that the Earth and Uranus are on the same side of the Sun, and typically on closest approach to each other:
The news in social media suggested that it would be so close that “it could be seen with the naked eye.” That sounded like hogwash to me, as there have been a lot of viral bogus memes around about being able to see things like the rings of Saturn and such.
Having now tracked down the planet, I can attest that — technically — it would be possible for a young person with excellent sharp eyesight to see the planet Uranus without binoculars … if they knew exactly where to look, and gazed at it out of the corner of their eye, and in a place (like where I live) with extremely dark skies and no cities nearby, but only on a cool clear night. But otherwise, forget about it.
Anyway, with the announcement of the opposition of Uranus in October I decided that this was a good opportunity to do some amateur astronomy and try to capture Uranus with some very low-tech equipment, which is a Nikon D-5000 camera mounted on a crude “Barn Door” equatorial mount. Using this mount, I can take long-exposures of up to 15 or 20 minutes, without smearing of the stars due to earth’s rotation.
The Barn Door mount is a clever contraption which anybody can build with $20 of parts from Ace Hardware or Walmart. The idea is simple, you just have two boards attached with a hinge, one board fixed to a tripod. You line up the hinge with Polaris (the north start), and mount the camera to the board that moves.
But before setting up my rig, I first had to track down the current position of the planet, which was said to be somewhere inside the constellation Pisces (the fish). Credit here must be given to Martin J Powell’s website NakedEyePlanets.com, which has this great chart of the path of Uranus:
Navigating the Stars
For anyone interested in astronomy, one way to begin is to learn how to find your way around the sky visible to the naked eye, without aid of telescopes and such. To do this, you need to learn some old-school tricks, in the form of stories. For example, to find Polaris, you first find the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and follow the line traced by two of the stars in the “pan” of the dipper.
Rant: With the latest GPS-enabled telescopes, it is far too easy to track down stars, planets and other bodies. These days, all you need to do is type in the name of the object (e.g. Uranus), and the telescope’s computer will use its GPS to determine where the telescope itself is located, as well as the current date/time, and then guide the telescope to the place in the sky where the object may be found. Or you can use one of the “Planets” apps on smart phones, which you can hold up in the sky and see what you are looking at.