The Position of Uranus in the Night Sky:
2006 to 2019
by Martin J. Powell
Star map showing the path of Uranus against the background stars of Aquarius and Pisces from June 2006 to January 2019 (click for full-size image, 86 KB). Positions are marked for each opposition date and selectively for Eastern and Western stationary points. In this diagram, the marked stationary points are paired for each loop, e.g. the '2009 Jul' and '2009 Dec' stationary points occur in the same loop, the planet passing opposition in between, i.e. at '2009 Sep 17' (the planet will always be moving retrograde - East to West - when it passes opposition). Uranus describes a series of shallow, Southward-facing loops because the planet is South of the ecliptic (by less than 1º) throughout the period shown on the chart (the individual loops are not discernible in this chart because of the scale of the map; instead, each loop appears as a thickened line). Note that because of the distance of Uranus from the Earth, the angular width of each loop (about 3º.9 from Eastern to Western stationary points) is such that the loops have only a narrow gap between them.
The star map applies to observers in the Northern hemisphere (i.e. North is up); for the Southern hemisphere view, click here (90 KB). The faintest stars shown on the map have an apparent magnitude of about +4.9. Printer-friendly versions of this chart are available for Northern (37 KB) and Southern hemisphere (38 KB) views. Astronomical co-ordinates of Right Ascension (longitude, measured Eastwards in hrs:mins from the First Point of Aries) and Declination (latitude, measured in degrees North or South of the celestial equator) are marked around the border of the chart.
The above chart will help in finding the general location of the planet throughout the period in question, however a detailed finder chart will be required to pinpoint the planet precisely - of which, see below.
From June 2006 to March 2009, Uranus was positioned in Aquarius, the Water Carrier, where it had been since early 2002. From March 2009, Uranus began its passage through one of the zodiac's faintest constellations - Pisces, the Fishes. During the 2012-13 period the planet made a few brief exits from the zodiac as it traversed the North-western corner of Cetus, the Whale, before continuing on its way through Pisces (a night sky photograph of this region can be seen below).
Uranus reaches opposition to the Sun (when it is closest to the Earth and brightest in the sky for the year) every 369.6 days on average, i.e. about 4 days later in each successive year. The apparent magnitude of the planet varies little during the period shown in the star chart: from +5.7 (at opposition) to +5.9 (at superior conjunction). Around all opposition dates shown on the map, the planet will be due South at local midnight in the Northern hemisphere (due North at local midnight in the Southern hemisphere).
Uranus imaged by NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft during its January 1986 flyby (click for larger image, 7 KB). The rings encircling the planet, discovered in 1977, are too faint to be seen with Earthbound telescopes (Image: NASA)
The apparent diameter of the planet (its angular size when seen from the Earth) at opposition throughout the period covered by the star chart is 3".7 (3.7 arcseconds, where 1 arcsecond = 1/3600th of a degree).
In 2010, Uranus reached opposition on the same day as Jupiter (September 21st) with just five hours between their opposition times; Uranus was then positioned 0º.8 to the North of the Giant Planet. The two planets also underwent a triple conjunction from 2010-11, passing each other in the sky on three occasions. An animation showing the two planets' motions during this period can be seen here.
In February 2009 Uranus reached aphelion (its furthest point from the Sun) at 20.1 Astronomical Units (3 thousand million kms or 1.87 thousand million miles) and consequently was at its most poorly-placed orbital position for observation from the Earth. The situation only slowly improves and Earthbound observers will have to wait until 2050 (when the planet is in Leo) before it reaches perihelion (its closest point to the Sun) at 18.28 AU (2.73 thousand million kms or 1.7 thousand million miles) to see the planet at its brightest and best. Despite the closeness, however, the planet's opposition magnitude will only increase by about 0.4 magnitudes to +5.3.
From 2011-12 Uranus crossed the celestial equator in Pisces on three occasions: in April 2011 (heading North-eastwards and moving direct), then in October 2011 (moving retrograde and temporarily heading South-westwards) and again in January 2012 (resuming North-easterly motion, moving direct). For the first time in over 41 years, the planet became visible for a longer period of time in the Northern hemisphere than in the Southern hemisphere (prior to that, it crossed the celestial equator - heading South-eastwards along the ecliptic - in Virgo in 1969).
Looking further ahead, the blue-green ice giant will continue its Northward motion along the ecliptic until it reaches its most Northerly point in Gemini in 2034, having crossed its ascending node on the ecliptic (moving from South to North) in Taurus in 2029.
[Terms in yellow italics are explained in greater detail in an associated article describing planetary movements in the night sky.]
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Finding Uranus in Your Local Night Sky
Where in the night sky should I look for Uranus tonight? In which direction and how high up will it be?
The location of a planet (or any other celestial body) in your local night sky depends upon several factors: the constellation in which it is positioned, your geographical latitude and longitude and the date and time at which you observe. To find a planet in the night sky at any particular date and time, we must know two things: a direction in which to look along the observer's horizon (eg. Southeast, East-Southeast) and an angle to look above the horizon (known as altitude or elevation).
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Uranus Conjunctions with other Planets,
Viewed from the orbiting Earth, whenever two planets appear to pass each other in the night sky (a line-of-sight effect) the event is known as a planetary conjunction or appulse. Not all planetary conjunctions will be visible from the Earth, however, because many of them take place too close to the Sun. Furthermore, not all of them will be seen from across the world; the observers' latitude will affect the altitude (angle above the horizon) at which the two planets are seen at the time of the event, and the local season will affect the sky brightness at that particular time. A flat, unobstructed horizon will normally be required to observe most of them.
The majority of conjunctions involving Uranus are not spectacular to view because the planet is never brighter than magnitude +5.3, which is barely above the naked-eye limiting magnitude. Twilight quickly renders the planet unobservable (even through binoculars), so conjunctions taking place less than about 20° from the Sun will be difficult or impossible to see. When one considers that Venus is always less than 47° from the Sun, whilst Mercury is always less than about 27° from the Sun, it follows that, whenever either of these planets are involved in conjunctions with Uranus, twilight will usually be a problem, the lighter sky diminishing the visual impact of the conjunction. Under such circumstances, binoculars will nearly always be required to glimpse Uranus as a pale-blue-green 'star'. Even when the elongation is favourable, a further problem beckons in that the glare caused by Venus in particular makes it difficult to see the much fainter planet beside it. In such instances (e.g. for the Venus-Uranus conjunction of March 9th 2020) binocular observers may find it easier to position Venus just outside the binocular field of view so that the eye can more comfortably view the distant gas giant.
Most conjunctions between Uranus and the other superior planets (Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune) occur at elongations of less than 90°, when Uranus is below its brightest magnitude in any given apparition. During the eight-year period from 2012 to 2020, for example, all the visible conjunctions take place at elongations of less than 47°, Uranus being close to the naked-eye limiting magnitude in all cases.
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Uranus' most interesting conjunctions take place when the planet is within a few months of opposition, at which times they involve the much brighter planets Mars, Jupiter or Saturn; these events are however very rare. The most recent conjunction of note was between Uranus and Jupiter on January 2nd 2011 - the last of three conjunctions which took place between the two planets during the 2010-11 observing season (for more details, see here). Uranus' next favourable conjunctions with superior planets will be with Jupiter in September 2037 and with Saturn in 2079(!).
Because Uranus is positioned in central and Eastern Pisces during the period in question, i.e. within a 10° declination band to the North of the celestial equator, conjunctions during this time are favourable to Northern and Southern hemispheres in roughly equal measure. Owing to the angle that the ecliptic presents to the local horizon along this section of the zodiac, evening conjunctions will favour Northern hemisphere observers whilst morning conjunctions will favour Southern hemisphere observers.
Neptune, positioned to the South-west of Uranus in the constellation of Aquarius, is often considered to be Uranus' planetary 'twin'. From the viewpoint of the Earth, faster-moving Uranus 'overtook' Neptune when the planets were in Sagittarius in July 1993, at which point they were seen in conjunction. This was the first time the two planets had been in conjunction since they were discovered (Uranus in 1781, Neptune in 1846). Conjunctions between Uranus and Neptune are rare events indeed, occurring about every 172 years; the next one will take place in the year 2164.
The following table lists the conjunctions involving Uranus which take place between 2011 and 2020 at solar elongations of greater than 20°. In several cases, other planets are also in the vicinity and these are detailed. Note that, because some of the conjunctions occur in twilight, the planets involved may not appear as bright as their listed magnitude suggests.
Uranus conjunctions with other planets from 2011 to 2020 (click on thumbnail for full-size table, 75 KB) Note that there are no observable planetary conjunctions involving Uranus during 2016. The column headed 'UT' is the Universal Time (equivalent to GMT) of the conjunction (in hrs : mins). The separation (column 'Sep') is the angular distance between the two planets, measured relative to Uranus, e.g. on 2015 Mar 4, Venus is positioned 0°.1 North of Uranus at the time shown. The 'Fav. Hem' column shows the Hemisphere in which the conjunction will be best observed (Northern, Southern and/or Equatorial). The expression 'Not high N Lats' indicates that observers at latitudes further North than about 50°N will find the conjunction difficult or impossible to observe because of low altitude and/or bright twilight.
In the 'When Visible' column, a distinction is made between Dawn/Morning visibility and Dusk/Evening visibility; the terms Dawn/Dusk refer specifically to the twilight period before sunrise/after sunset, whilst the terms Evening/Morning refer to the period after darkness falls/before twilight begins (some conjunctions take place in darkness, others do not, depending upon latitude). The 'Con' column shows the constellation in which the planets are positioned at the time of the conjunction.
To find the direction in which the conjunctions will be seen on any of the dates in the table, note down the constellation in which the planets are located ('Con' column) on the required date and find the constellation's rising direction (for Dawn/Morning apparitions) or setting direction (for Dusk/Evening apparitions) for your particular latitude in the Rise-Set direction table.
Although any given conjunction takes place at a particular instant in time, it is worth pointing out that, because of the planets' relatively slow daily motions, such events are interesting to observe for several days both before and after the actual conjunction date.
There are in fact two methods of defining a planetary conjunction date: one is measured in Right Ascension (i.e. perpendicular to the celestial equator) and the other is measured along the ecliptic, which is inclined at 23½° to the Earth's equatorial plane (this is due to the tilt of the Earth's axis in space). An animation showing how conjunction dates are determined by each method can be found on the Jupiter-Uranus 2010-11 triple conjunction page. Although conjunction dates measured along the ecliptic are technically more accurate (separations between planets can be significantly closer) the Right Ascension method is the more commonly used, and it is the one which is adopted here.
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Pisces, Aries & the Great Square of Pegasus A photograph showing the region of the night sky through which Uranus passes during the present decade (click on thumbnail for full-size photo, 56 KB). Stars in the photograph can be seen down to about magnitude +6.5. An annotated version of the photograph can be seen here (14 KB).
Finder Chart for Uranus, 2018
During the first few months of 2018 Uranus can be found in South-eastern Pisces, positioned a short distance West of the star Torcular ( Psc or Omicron Piscium, mag. +4.3) in the 'tail' region of the Fishes. The planet heads out of view in the dusk twilight in late March, passing behind the Sun (at superior conjunction) on April 18th. By the time Uranus emerges into the dawn sky in mid-May it has moved into Aries, the Ram (having spent the previous nine years in Pisces). The planet then spends most of the remainder of the year in the South-western corner of Aries, retrograding back into Pisces for a short period from mid-December.
The Path of Uranus in South-eastern Pisces/South-western Aries during 2018, marked on the first day of each month (click for full-size image, 95 KB). A Southern hemisphere view can be found here (99 KB). Periods when the planet is too close to the Sun to be observable are indicated by a dashed line. Ideally, searches for Uranus should be carried out on Moonless nights, i.e. in the two-week period centred on the New Moon in any given month.
Uranus reaches opposition to the Sun on October 24th 2018 (indicated on the chart by the symbol ) when it shines at magnitude +5.7 and measures 3".7 (3.7 arcseconds) in diameter. The planet is then 18.875 Astronomical Units (2,823 million kms or 1,754 million statute miles) from the Earth.
Much of the star field in the chart should be easily contained within a binocular field of view (which typically ranges from 5° to 9°). Stars are shown down to magnitude +8.5. Right Ascension and Declination co-ordinates are marked around the border, for cross-referencing with a star atlas. Printer-friendly (greyscale) versions of the chart are available for Northern (44 KB) and Southern hemisphere (46 KB) views.
Click here (77 KB) to see a 'clean' star map of the area (i.e. without planet path); observers may wish to use the 'clean' star map as an aid to plotting the planet's position on a specific night - in which case, a printable version can be found here (37 KB).
Previous finder charts for Uranus can be seen for 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
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Copyright Martin J Powell 2006-2017
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