Attention, inhabitants of the northern hemisphere of our fragile home world. You're about to get one of the best peeks at Uranus in years – because the strange alien planet will reach opposition with the Sun and be at the closest point in its orbit to Earth.
On Thursday and Friday, Earth will be directly in between the second-furthest planet in our Solar System and the Sun, meaning that as the Sun sets in the west, Uranus will pop up in the east and should be visible to the naked eye, light pollution permitting.
Uranus will be 18.91 astronomical units, or 1,757,794,316 miles (2,828,895,735 kilometres) away from Earth, making for an unprecedented viewing opportunity. As an additional bonus, the sky will be particularly dark as it's new Moon time, so Uranus will be easier to pick out.
"Both these factors make it a great time to view the planet," Jane Houston Jones, senor outreach specialist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told The Register today. "We've actually been looking at Uranus for a couple of months now but it's a more convenient and human-friendly viewing time."
Uranus is instantly recognizable thanks to its blue-green color, which is the result of the methane in Uranus tinting the atmosphere. Those keen for a nighttime glimpse of Uranus should look at the constellation of Pisces to the south east. Jones recommends smartphone users download and use one of many stargazing apps, like Sky Map, that point out and identify planets, individual stars and other features of the night sky.
Getting to see Uranus is something of a treat because it isn't usually this visible. Solar oppositions with Uranus only come around once every 367 Earth days, and, as mentioned, this time there's a new Moon, which means it'll be extra dark out there. For years, it was thought to be a distant star or a comet by its discoverer Sir William Herschel, before the orbital motions of Uranus exposed it as a planet.
Sadly, you won't be able to see Uranus' rings unless you're using a telescope or binoculars in non-light-polluted areas.
For those that miss out on a Uranus-viewing tonight, there is another option that could prove illuminating later this month, Jones suggested. October 28 is International Observe the Moon Night, and astronomy clubs across the world will be holding viewing parties focusing in on our natural satellite.
Moon watchers will also be able to spot Uranus on that night, since it's relatively close to our closest planetary companion. Amateur enthusiasts should be happy to help you take a good long look at Uranus as part of the festivities. ®