Look up at the sky tomorrow night, Sunday, October 11, and you’ll be able to see Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun. At a basic level, Uranus will be visible for the same reason that we had a supermoon eclipse last month. Uranus will be “at opposition” from the Sun. The planet will line up with the Earth and the Sun, meaning that from our point of view, it will be fully illuminated by the Sun’s rays. Because the planet will be as close to the Earth as it’s going to get, it will be relatively big and bright in the night sky. (Keep in mind it's still about 1.6 billion miles away from the Earth, so don't expect a Moon-like white orb to be visible with the naked eye.) Even more exciting, as Universe Today explained, with a sufficiently powerful backyard telescope, you might even be able to discern a few of Uranus’s 27 moons.
WHERE WILL IT BE?
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The easiest way to find Uranus will be to locate the constellation Pisces—the one that represents two fish (the gods Aphrodite and Eros, who in Greek mythology changed into fish and—at least in some versions—tied themselves together so as not to lose one other). Uranus will be the teal light one-third of the way down the lower fish’s “tether.” From the U.S., Uranus will rise from the eastern horizon, and will be most visible around midnight. Precise times and directions will vary depending on hemispheres and regions.
If you’re careful to preserve your night vision, you can use a smartphone app such as SkyView to spot it quickly. Otherwise, EarthSky has a good guide for finding Pisces. If you are in an area with too much light pollution, a pair of binoculars will make finding the planet a lot easier.
Uranus is considered an ice giant (as opposed to gas giants Saturn and Jupiter). This is because the bulk of its mass is made up of icy methane, ammonia, and water. Meanwhile, its atmosphere—the coldest of any planet in the solar system—consists primarily of hydrogen and helium, and can reach a brisk -370 degrees F. The planet is unique in the solar system for its 98-degree axial tilt. Relative to the other planets, Uranus essentially rotates up and down as opposed to side to side. To make things even more interesting, it rotates on its axis east to west as it orbits the Sun; only Venus shares the same trait.
This has been an exciting year for Uranus. In August, NASA announced that it has asked Jet Propulsion Laboratory, its affiliated research and development center, to begin studying an orbiter mission to Uranus (as well as one to Neptune). We last explored that world in 1986 as part of the Voyager 2 flyby; the image of Uranus as a beautifully haunting blue-white orb, as seen in the top image, was captured on that mission. Planetary scientists have long pined to get a better look. The upcoming mission will likely look a lot like the Cassini spacecraft’s ongoing venture to the Saturn system. The Uranus orbiter would be considered a NASA flagship-class mission, as its price tag will run in excess of $2 billion. It will likely launch in the late 2020s or early 2030s, after the Europa Multiple-Flyby Mission lifts off and is well on its way to Jupiter to determine the habitability of the gas giant's intriguing moon.