Uranus: The Sideways Planet
A Brief Overview of Uranus
Among the solar system’s four giant outer planets, Jupiter and Saturn are mostly made of hydrogen and helium. They are known as gas giants. In contrast, while Uranus and Neptune have atmospheres of hydrogen and helium, these planets consist mostly of slushy, rocky, icy materials. They are called ice giants.
Where Is Uranus in the Sky?
When Is the Best Time to See Uranus?
Uranus isn’t a bright planet. In perfect dark-sky conditions, it is just visible with the naked eye as a faint blue dot. In general, however, binoculars or a small telescope are required to see it.
A good time to spot Uranus is when it is high in the night sky. The best time is around midnight when the planet is at or close to opposition, the period when Uranus and the Sun are on opposite sides of the Earth. Oppositions of Uranus happen every 370 days or so.
At solar conjunction, the planet passes behind the Sun, as seen from Earth, and is completely invisible for a few weeks.
Next solar conjunction: May 13, 2024
Next opposition: November 17, 2024
Previous opposition: November 13, 2023
Previous solar conjunction: May 9, 2023
How Long Is a Day and a Year?
Like all the planets, Uranus is tilted. But whereas Earth’s axial tilt is a moderate 23.5 degrees or so, Uranus has a tilt of around 97.8 degrees. This makes it appear that the planet is spinning on its side as it orbits the Sun.
Uranus takes about 17 Earth hours to complete one spin. Uranus and Venus are the only planets in the solar system with retrograde rotation. As seen from above the Sun’s north pole, they spin in a direction (clockwise) opposite to the direction of their orbit around the Sun (counterclockwise).
Around the solstices, which come about every 42 years, almost an entire hemisphere of Uranus is in permanent sunlight, with the other in permanent darkness. Around the equinoxes, both hemispheres have about eight and a half hours of day, followed by eight and a half hours of night.
How Many Moons Does Uranus Have?
There are 27 known moons orbiting Uranus. Its largest moon, Titania, is about half the diameter of our own Moon.
Uranus also has rings, although these are dark, faint, and difficult to see.
Human Exploration of Uranus
Astronomers had spotted Uranus on previous occasions but had mistaken it for a star. Herschel initially thought he had discovered a comet rather than a planet.
Within the astronomy community, “Uranus” is generally pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, not the second (“YUR-unus”).
So far, there has only been one spacecraft mission to Uranus. Voyager 2 made a flyby during a “Grand Tour” of the outer planets between 1979 and 1989.
How Long Does It Take to Get to Uranus?
In the late 1970s and 1980s, an alignment of the planets occurred that enabled Voyager 2 to use gravity assist maneuvers to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The spacecraft reached Uranus in about eight and a half years.
- Launched: August 20, 1977
- Arrived: January 24, 1986 (flyby, closest approach)
- Journey time: 8 years, 5 months, and 4 days
All dates are shown in UTC.