During early 2024, Jupiter appears to be heading for Uranus. This gives a great opportunity to find the elusive Uranus in the evening sky, even from city locations, using just binoculars. And don’t worry – there’s no risk of a collision!
Your guides to this celestial event are the bright planet Jupiter, shining brightly in the evening sky high up in the south-west, and the lovely Pleiades cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters. You can spot these with the naked eye even in city skies. This year, Uranus lies between the two – but you’ll need to look with binoculars to find it.
For most of human history, the giant planet Uranus was unknown. The Solar System finished at Saturn, which is bright enough to be seen easily. It wasn’t until 1781 that the (then) musician and amateur astronomer William Herschel spotted a slowly moving object using a home-made telescope from his back garden in Bath, England. This proved to be a previously unknown planet, over twice as far from the Sun as Saturn, and just on the limit of visibility with the naked eye. Unsurprisingly, no-one had ever spotted that this faint point of light moved from year to year.
So Uranus is a planet that even amateur astronomers have to search for. But it’s easy enough to find if you know where to look, and the map above shows you how to do it.
Start by locating the Pleiades – you can’t miss them, as they catch the eye even though none of them are particularly bright. Through binoculars you can see dozens of the stars in this delightful cluster. Now move your binoculars in the direction of Jupiter, and as soon as the Pleiades leave the field of view you will see the pattern of stars outlined in red on the map.
Follow the right-hand edge of the pattern downwards to find Uranus, as shown on the map. There’s no other object in that part of the sky to be bright enough to be confused with it.
But Uranus does move over the days and months. Here’s a map that shows its changing position between February and May 2024.
And Jupiter moves as well during the first few months of 2024, but much more quickly. This map shows its positions from 1 February to 1 April 2024:
On 19 April, Jupiter and Uranus will be very close together, although by this time both will be low in the evening twilight. So keep an eye on the race of the planets taking place before your very eyes!
Here’s a photograph of Jupiter, the Pleiades and Uranus taken on 1 February: