You mention the planet Uranus and people smile. It’s not that there’s anything incredible about it, just the opposite.
What the name of that planet invokes is probably memories of one of the worst jokes in history. If you’ve never heard it, the joke goes “What does toilet paper and the StarShip Enterprise have in common?”
I’ll let you look up the answer.
The planet itself isn’t exactly invisible. It does flirt right at the edge of naked eye visiblity, but if you’ve sharp eyes and know where to look, you can see it. Certainly, the ancients knew about it, but unlike the other bright stars that wandered the heavens, this one was ignored.
Dazzling Venus and brilliant Jupiter drew human eyes. And so did Saturn as it moved slowly among the heavenly hosts. Mars caused men to catch their breath as it heralded war, and elusive Mercury played tag with the Sun.
But Uranus was ignored. Surely someone saw it, and I if they’d bothered, I wonder what myths might have grown up around it.
Maybe it was a frightening intruder, hovering right at the edge of the line between light and dark as it watched us, waiting for the chance to strike. Or maybe it was an outcast, banished from the light for some perceived offense.
Or maybe it just offended their sensibilities and while the faint star fit all the parameters of the planets, they ignored it because it just upset their sense of order. History records that it was certainly noted by historical stargazers, and is even noted on star charts.
It was left for William Herschel to find it one dark night in March of 1781. At first, he thought he’d found a new comet, and for weeks he persisted in that belief. He’d dutifully reported it, and other astronomers pointed their instruments towards it. No one reported seeing a tail or a dusky nucleus like a comet has, and as they watched, and tinkered with it’s orbital parameters, the truth began to dawn on them.
What Herschel had stumbled upon was a new world.
They named it Uranus, but only after many decades had passed since it was found. Herschel wanted to name it after King George, a move that went over like a flying hippo with the astronomical community.
Finally it was named Uranus and is the only great world named after a character from Greek mythology.
Flash forward almost three hundred years.
A tall, young man has just finished his observations for the night at the Harry W. Zachies Observatory. It’s a cold night, and his breath is a cloud when he exhales. He’s dressed in heavy boots, woolen socks, and a heavy coat with a sweater under it. It’s so cold, he’s got a blanket draped over his shoulders.
If you’d have asked me why I was out there that night, I’d have told you because I love the skies. Alamosa hadn’t grown much yet, and the skies were still dark. I finished my work, looked up into the heavens and smiled to myself.
I pulled out the atlas, found the coordinates I wanted, and swung the telescope around to an unassuming piece of the sky. We had a twelve inch cassegrain telescope at the college, and I used it most every night. I roamed the skies like most people would roam the woods. I became familiar with the dusty trails of comets, the pulsing of stars light years away. Time and again, I traveled the star lanes, marveling at this star, or that nebula.
But tonight, my quarry was a little closer to home. I wanted to see a world I’d hunted for, but never seen.
As I hunted for it, I remembered hunting for it with my tiny telescope. I’d looked at the position in a copy of Sky and Telescope magazine, and pointed my puny Tasco towards it. I looked. Half a dozen stars were in the field of view. What I was looking for a slightly greenish blue star, only this one might show tiny a disk.
Nothing. I moved the scope this way and that, but still nothing.
I checked each star in the field, but with higher magnification. Still nothing.
I didn’t have setting circles on the small scope, so looking in that direction was a best guess. The planet could have been just outside the area I was looking at, but I never saw it.
Now years later, I was giving it another try. I swung the telescope around, and carefully checked the setting circles that I had the coordinates right. It was still kind of a hunt because it involved making sure I’d set the setting circles correctly to begin with.
I always used a bright star to do that. I point the scope towards say Vega or Sirius, and when it was smack in the middle of the eyepiece, I’d set the setting circles to match the Right Ascension and Declination of the object.
I’d been very careful tonight. I wanted to find the planet.
I swung it around, matching the numbers as close as I could to the numbers in the book. Satisfied, I went to the eyepiece. It was a low power eyepiece, perfect for looking at a large area of sky.
We had a small control device that allowed me to slew the telescope a little. I pushed the button for one direction.
I went the other way.
And there it was. A tiny blue green disk floated in from one side of the eyepiece. I let it move till it was in the center.
Only then did I go to a higher powered eyepiece. The disk got larger but was utterly featureless. I couldn’t see any of it’s moons, or make out any proof that the planet had it’s axis almost in the same plane as it’s orbit.
After years of hunting the elusive prey, I was very disappointed.
Years later when Voyager 2 flew past it, I realized that the unassuming world was anything but that.
Uranus sported a great ring system, hinted at earlier when stars passed behind the thin bands. As I turned through the pages of Astronomy magazine, the faraway dot of light
became a world for me. I marveled at the rings, and the moons that hurtled about it. I wondered what great disaster could have tossed the planet on its side.
It would be years before I returned to gaze at this world at on the edge of darkness. only now I could appreciate it.
I was glad I returned to it that night.
And I wonder how many years will pass before we also return to it, and just how we might do that.