On March 13th, 1781 the composer, musician, and amateur astronomer William Herschel looked through his telescope and realized what he’d initially thought was a comet was, in fact, a previously unknown planet. It was the first planet discovered in modern times and, after a lot of discussion, would eventually be named Uranus, after the primordial Greek god of the sky. Although it had been observed since ancient times it was so distant and so difficult to see it was assumed to be a star. The discovery that it was a planet is why I think Uranus deserves special recognition.
This has been an unusual time for Uranus. Normally it can only be seen through a telescope, although it was occasionally seen with the naked eye by ancient astronomers, but recently Uranus has been visible with a pair of binoculars, thanks to a waxing crescent Moon, which it’s been close to in the constellation Aries. Although Uranus at its closest is 1.6 billion miles of Earth it’s currently 1.8 billion miles away, making its 84-year journey around the sun with its peculiar sideways tilt. Uranus keeps one pole toward the sun at all times and its rings were only discovered in 1977 when astronomers watched Uranus pass in front of a star. Before going behind Uranus the star appeared to blink.
When Voyager 2 flew past Uranus in 1986 astronomers were unimpressed and thought it was a pretty boring planet. Since then interest in Uranus has picked up. Seasonal changes and wind speeds of 560 miles per hour have been found on Uranus. Its temperature of -200 degrees Celsius means Uranus is a very, very cold place, but even stranger is that it’s the only one of the gas giants that doesn’t release detectable heat.
At one time scientists also thought the enormous pressures might turn carbon in Uranus’s atmosphere into giant diamonds. Now the thinking is that those pressures might produce diamonds but crush them, creating diamond rainfall. Still we don’t know whether this even happens. Uranus still holds so many mysteries.
If space travel advances Uranus may someday also be very important as a launching point for missions leaving the solar system, and the large quantities of methane in Uranus may even be a source of fuel. There’s also the town of Uranus, Missouri, a small stopping point for tourists along the historic Route 66, where you can visit the Fudge Factory And General Store and play a little golf at Uranus Putt Pirates, and where, the mayor has told me, they celebrate every March 13th.
All this is why I think Uranus Day is an event we can all get behind.