Did you see the “blue-green planet” Uranus earlier this month?
If you haven’t, there’s another relative chance this Sunday night – and it will be the last easy chance you have this year.
Because as soon as the sun sets this Sunday, April 3, 2022, the narrow crescent moon will shine low in the western sky – and barely 1º away will be the seventh planet, Uranus.
However, the only planet that turns on its side every 17 hours and 14 minutes is not particularly easy to spot at first glance.
After all, it’s a whopping 1.8 billion miles/2.9 billion kilometers away and will therefore shine at a faint magnitude of +5.8.
It’s also a tiny blue-green dot between the stars. So you need binoculars or a small telescope.
So why is Sunday a good chance?
The position of a 7% illuminated crescent moon, which appears to be right next to the planet, makes it much easier to find than if it hovers like a speck in the night sky.
Here’s what you’ll see one hour after sunset on Sunday, looking west:
And here is a close-up:
Look directly under the illuminated crescent moon and not 1º away you will find the blue-green dot of Uranus.
However, you must be outside and looking west an hour after sunset, and not much later, as Uranus will be sinking rapidly and will soon disappear into the haze of the horizon. An elevated position and a good, clear view down to the horizon will help.
It’s worth it as Uranus is about to disappear from the evening sky. It won’t come back for six months.
A ringed planet like Saturn, Uranus is virtually unexplored. NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft flew close by Uranus in 1986, and nothing has come back since.
Every photo you’ve ever seen of Uranus was taken during Voyager 2’s brief flyby.
But Uranus requires a flagship mission from NASA because of its moons.
Although you can’t see any of them, do know that Uranus has a whopping 27 moons. In fact, it has the densest moon group of any planet in the solar system.
All of the moons of Uranus are named after characters in the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope.
The four most interesting are Ariel, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon, mainly because they may contain subterranean oceans.
keyword “moons of Uranus‘ project that will use the James Webb Space Telescope to study Ariel, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon, looking for traces of ammonia, organic molecules, carbon dioxide ice and water.
Should NASA Send a Big Mission to Uranus? The timing is good. Fortunately, a rare planetary alignment of Neptune, Uranus and Jupiter will soon provide a rare window to send a spacecraft on a “slingshot” over Jupiter to one of the outer “ice giant” planets.
There is a proposal to do just that, and it’s possible it could get the green light by the April 2022 Planetary Science Decadal Survey. In this case, the spacecraft would have to leave Earth in the early 2030s to get to Uranus by 2043.
I wish you clear skies and big eyes.