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Starts With A Bang

Here’s How To See Uranus And Mars Meet In The Sky This Week

The first planet beyond ‘naked eye’ astronomy will pass within just 1° of Mars.

Although there are eight major planets in the Solar System, most of us never see Uranus or Neptune.

Voyager 2 flew by both Uranus (R) and Neptune (L), and revealed the properties, colors, atmospheres, and ring systems of both worlds. They both have rings, many interesting moons, and atmospheric and surface phenomena we’re just waiting to investigate. Uranus was first discovered in 1781 and Neptune in 1846, well after the invention of the telescope. (NASA / VOYAGER 2)

Undiscovered until well after the invention of the telescope, both worlds cannot be reliably spotted with the naked eye.

Conjunctions are relatively common astronomical phenomena, and occur when two objects, such as planets (Venus and Jupiter from 2015 are shown here), pass close by one another in the sky. For planets that are invisible to the naked eye, such as Uranus or Neptune, conjunctions provide the best opportunity to spot them with a pair of binoculars by giving you an astronomical landmark to navigate from. (GETTY)

On rare occasions, however, one of those worlds will pass close to an easily-visible astronomical landmark, providing a perfect viewing opportunity.

This image shows the moon and planet Mars over the volcano Mt. Agung in Bali. The photo was taken in July of 2018, shortly after the phase of maximum totality during the lunar eclipse. Mars has remained visible in the night sky throughout the time from then until now. (GETTY)

This Tuesday night, Uranus will pass within just 1° of Mars, enabling clear views with technology no more complex than binoculars.

For most portions of the world, Mars and Uranus will make their closest approach to one another sometime between nightfall on February 12th and sunrise on February 13th. However, the pair will only be visible during the first part of the night, before setting below the horizon. (E. SIEGEL USING IN-THE-SKY.ORG’S PLOTTER TOOL BY DOMINIC FORD)

After sunset this week, Mars will shine bright and red in the southwest portion of the sky.

The night sky, as it will appear at approximately 7:00 PM after sundown on Tuesday, Feburary 12th, from the Northern Hemisphere. Note the position of Mars in the southwest portion of the sky. (E. SIEGEL / STELLARIUM)

If you view it with binoculars, two fainter objects will appear nearby: a white-colored point and a turquoise disk.

As viewed through a pair of binoculars on Feburary 12th, just to the east of Mars, two fainter points of light will prominently appear: the whitish star HIP 8588 and the bluish planet Uranus. Mars will appear to migrate from the lower right to the upper left of this image over time; if you view it on the night of the 13th you can expect to find Mars higher in the sky than shown here. (E. SIEGEL / STELLARIUM)

The white object is a normal star: HIP 8588. But unlike the star, the disk won’t twinkle; that’s Uranus.

Uranus’ rings and several of its satellites are visible in this wide-field view of the planet, which shows a banded structure in the atmosphere, a clear difference between the north and south poles, and storms/clouds of some sort brewing on the winter hemisphere. These images were taken a few years before Uranus’ equinox using the Hubble Space Telescope. Amateur views can reveal features as well, but none as spectacular as this. (NASA/ERICH KARKOSCHKA, UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA)

Through a more powerful tool, like a telescope, you can clearly see the physical size as larger than a single point.

A simulated view of what Uranus may look like on the night of February 13th, when the conjunction with Mars is at its peak. The exact position of the moons will vary depending on the exact time you view it, with smaller telescopes failing to reveal some or all of the five major Uranian moons. (E. SIEGEL / STELLARIUM)

The largest amateur telescopes can even make out a number of Uranus’ moons; five are bright enough to see through an 18″ telescope.

Amateur telescopes can never hope to match the view of a large, professional-class telescope when it comes to viewing a planetary system like the one of Uranus. Here, a near-infrared view reveals rings and some of its moons, obtained with the ISAAC multi-mode instrument on the 8.2-m VLT ANTU telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory (Chile). The moons are identified; the unidentified, round object to the left is a background star. (ESO)

The conjunction of February 12/13 is the only one where Uranus is visible for all of 2019.

An infrared view from the Keck Telescope shows details in the atmosphere of Uranus, the third-largest planet in the solar system. In optical light, Uranus looks like a featureless blue-green marble, because methane in its upper atmosphere absorbs red wavelengths of light. Infrared peers through the methane haze, revealing belts of clouds plus bright storms that extend high above most of the surrounding clouds. These two views show the eastern and western hemispheres. They also reveal Uranus’ narrow rings. (LAWRENCE SROMOVSKY, UNIV. WISCONSIN-MADISON/W.M. KECK OBSERVATORY)

Mostly Mute Monday tells the astronomical story of an object, class, or phenomenon in visuals, images, and no more than 200 words. Talk less; smile more.

Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.


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