Happy Holi everyone! Also happy early Pi Day and the one with all the green stuff! Have an enjoyable and safe celebration of all you care to. I am kicking things off today, but not for the aforementioned Hindu spring festival of love (go ask Google). I am instead hoisting a cold one for the 236th anniversary of the discovery of Uranus!
The seventh planet in our solar system is the third largest behind Jupiter and Saturn respectively, although not the third heaviest. That weighty honor belongs to its slightly heavier and farther-from-the-sun neighbor Neptune (slightly is a relative term). Uranus was official discovered on March 13, 1781 by British astronomer William Herschel. This dude was an astronomy all-star (pun very much intended). Herschel is most well known for his determination that Uranus was a planet, but he also discovered some moons of Uranus and Saturn, did some studies on Mars’ seasonal shifts and rotation, was the first President of the Royal Astronomical Society, and, oh yeah, fucking found out that infrared radiation was a thing! William Herschel discovered a planet and a form of electromagnetic radiation on the light spectrum! I found $20 in a parking lot once, but something tells me his stuff will probably be longer remembered.
While Herschel was the first to conclude that Uranus was definitely a planet, he was not the first to spot it in the sky. Uranus can actually be seen with the naked eye and it is the farthest planet that can be seen without help from a optical device. It was the first planet official discovered with a telescope, and was the first planet to be discovered in modern history (as in this side of the Renaissance), however, it was noted by other previous astronomers on their surveys of the night sky, perhaps even possibly cataloged as far back as before the common era. Why then do we give credit to Herschel? Well, mainly because everyone who took a look at Uranus (shut up!) before him thought it was one of the many stars in the cosmos. Herschel, with the aid of his telescope was able to figure out the true identity of the shining celestial body, although, even he first assumed it was a comet, and not a planet. Hey, we all goof sometimes; at least he figured it out eventually.
As was the case with Uranus, modern technology (again, modern in the sense of being refined post-Renaissance) helped to uncover the existence of Neptune, Uranus’ next door neighbor. As a matter of fact, Neptune was not seen, but was first discovered because it was tugging on Uranus’ orbit (stop that childish laughter!) and the pull was correctly determined to be from another planet. We have since gotten a good look at both worlds with the aid of even more modern technology, specifically the NASA probe Voyager 2, which is the only spacecraft to have whizzed by either of the ice giants. That’s what Uranus and Neptune are considered, by the way. As both planets are massive and gaseous (all right, c’mon!) they are classified as giant planets, or jovian planets – Jove is another name for the Roman god Jupiter, which you’ll recall is the namesake of our solar system’s largest planet. Nevertheless, not all giant planets are gas giants. Gas giants, like Jupiter and Saturn, are composed primarily of hydrogen and helium, the lightest elements. Ice giants are mostly heavier elements like oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, none of which are astoundingly heavy, but are heavier than hydrogen and helium.
Uranus is comprised predominantly of water, methane, and ammonia, but don’t hold out hope for the presence of water being potential source of life as the temperature is too low. But hey! It’s axis of rotation is retrograde – as is Venus’ – which means that it’s north and south poles are along the Uranus equivalent of Earth’s equator meaning Uranus spins horizontally! That’s why its rings are shown to be perpendicular to traditional rotation planets with rings like Saturn. One of Uranus’ rotations (a Uranian day) is only 17 hours, but its orbit around the sun (a Uranian year) is roughly 84 Earth years.
Thanks for reading! If you want to learn more about Uranus (keep your composure for one more paragraph!) then check out the NASA site where I got much of my information. Send any questions, comments, or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org, and orbit back here next week for more out of this world fun! That is not a promise of another space post… at least not immediately.