The planet Uranus is currently at its brightest for the year – but it still takes some finding! Here’s how to spot the elusive seventh planet from the Sun with just a pair of binoculars.
Although Uranus is just bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, it looks no different from any one of the faint stars at the limit of vision, even in a really dark sky. It’s no wonder that it wasn’t spotted until 1781, when amateur astronomer William Herschel noticed it with his home-made telescope from his garden in Bath. It still presents a challenge, and many stargazers have never spotted it. This year it’s quite easy to find, as it lies just about midway between two of the most recognisable features of the 2023 evening sky – brilliant Jupiter and the Pleiades star cluster.
Look up at the evening sky and you can’t miss Jupiter, as it’s the brightest object in the night sky right now, apart from the Moon (and the various man-made objects such as planes and the International Space Station). And some way to the left of Jupiter is the lovely Pleiades star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters. The photo below shows the view in November 2023 as seen from a fairly light-polluted area.
Look midway between Jupiter and the Pleiades and you will find a group of stars that mark the tail of the constellation of Aries, the Ram. Probably the best way to find them is to start by looking at the Pleiades with binoculars, then moving about two fields of view to the right, towards Jupiter. The photo below shows the area in more detail.
Now look just below the star at the right of the group. Not far below it is the object of your quest – Uranus itself. It’s the brightest object in that small part of the sky. It brightness is magnitude 5.6, where magnitude 1 is bright and magnitude 6 is the faintest you can see with the naked eye in a dark sky. So if you have good eyesight and are well away from city lights you might be able to glimpse it, but most of us will need binoculars.
Uranus is at its closest to us and at its brightest in 13 November, but its brightness doesn’t actually vary greatly so you can still find it for months to come. The photo above was taken on 4 November, but Uranus moves only slowly from night to night. This diagram shows how it moves, in a westerly direction, during the end of 2023. Even into 2024 it will be in the same area. It starts to sink into the evening twilight in spring 2024. However, Jupiter does move much more rapidly through the sky and by April 2024 Jupiter will be quite close in the sky to Uranus (and the Ram’s tail).
So when it’s clear, grab your binoculars and look for remote Uranus, nearly three billion kimometres away. You’ll spot it in two shakes of a lamb’s tail….