On this Day:
In 1781, William Herschel sees what he thinks is a “comet” but is actually the discovery of the planet Uranus.
Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun. Its name is a reference to the Greek God of the sky, Uranus, who, according to Greek mythology, was the great-grandfather of Ares (Mars), grandfather of Zeus (Jupiter) and father of Cronus (Saturn). It has the third-largest planetary radius and fourth-largest planetary mass in the Solar System. Uranus is similar in composition to Neptune, and both have bulk chemical compositions which differ from that of the larger gas giants Jupiter and Saturn. For this reason, scientists often classify Uranus and Neptune as “ice giants” to distinguish them from the other giant planets.
Like the classical planets, Uranus is visible to the naked eye, but it was never recognized as a planet by ancient observers because of its dimness and slow orbit. Sir William Herschel first observed Uranus on 13 March 1781, leading to its discovery as a planet, expanding the known boundaries of the Solar System for the first time in history and making Uranus the first planet classified as such with the aid of a telescope.
Uranus had been observed on many occasions before its recognition as a planet, but it was generally mistaken for a star. Possibly the earliest known observation was by Hipparchos, who in 128 BC might have recorded it as a star for his star catalogue that was later incorporated into Ptolemy’s Almagest. The earliest definite sighting was in 1690, when John Flamsteed observed it at least six times, cataloguing it as 34 Tauri. The French astronomer Pierre Charles Le Monnier observed Uranus at least twelve times between 1750 and 1769, including on four consecutive nights.
Sir William Herschel observed Uranus on 13 March 1781 from the garden of his house at 19 New King Street in Bath, Somerset, England (now the Herschel Museum of Astronomy), and initially reported it (on 26 April 1781) as a comet. With a homemade 6.2-inch reflecting telescope, Herschel “engaged in a series of observations on the parallax of the fixed stars.”
Herschel recorded in his journal: “In the quartile near ζ Tauri … either [a] Nebulous star or perhaps a comet.” On 17 March he noted: “I looked for the Comet or Nebulous Star and found that it is a Comet, for it has changed its place.” When he presented his discovery to the Royal Society, he continued to assert that he had found a comet, but also implicitly compared it to a planet:
The power I had on when I first saw the comet was 227. From experience I know that the diameters of the fixed stars are not proportionally magnified with higher powers, as planets are; therefore I now put the powers at 460 and 932, and found that the diameter of the comet increased in proportion to the power, as it ought to be, on the supposition of its not being a fixed star, while the diameters of the stars to which I compared it were not increased in the same ratio. Moreover, the comet being magnified much beyond what its light would admit of, appeared hazy and ill-defined with these great powers, while the stars preserved that lustre and distinctness which from many thousand observations I knew they would retain. The sequel has shown that my surmises were well-founded, this proving to be the Comet we have lately observed.
Herschel notified the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne of his discovery and received this flummoxed reply from him on 23 April 1781: “I don’t know what to call it. It is as likely to be a regular planet moving in an orbit nearly circular to the sun as a Comet moving in a very eccentric ellipsis. I have not yet seen any coma or tail to it.”
Although Herschel continued to describe his new object as a comet, other astronomers had already begun to suspect otherwise. Finnish-Swedish astronomer Anders Johan Lexell, working in Russia, was the first to compute the orbit of the new object. Its nearly circular orbit led him to a conclusion that it was a planet rather than a comet. Berlin astronomer Johann Elert Bode described Herschel’s discovery as “a moving star that can be deemed a hitherto unknown planet-like object circulating beyond the orbit of Saturn”. Bode concluded that its near-circular orbit was more like a planet’s than a comet’s.
The object was soon universally accepted as a new planet. By 1783, Herschel acknowledged this to Royal Society president Joseph Banks: “By the observation of the most eminent Astronomers in Europe it appears that the new star, which I had the honour of pointing out to them in March 1781, is a Primary Planet of our Solar System.” In recognition of his achievement, King George III gave Herschel an annual stipend of £200 on condition that he move to Windsor so that the Royal Family could look through his telescopes (equivalent to £25,000 in 2020) (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
On Dec. 23, 1690, the English astronomer John Flamsteed observed Uranus without realizing it was undiscovered. Which is a classic example of not knowing Uranus from ….
Second, a Song:
National Geographic is the world’s premium destination for science, exploration, and adventure. Through their world-class scientists, photographers, journalists, and filmmakers, Nat Geo gets you closer to the stories that matter and past the edge of what’s possible.
Per National Geographic and YouTube.com: Uranus is a planet beyond convention. Find out why it boasts the coldest temperatures in the solar system, what phenomena caused the unique tilt of its axis, and the curious origin of the planet’s name.
Here is Uranus 101 from National Geographic. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“Here’s something for you … Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, and self help books are from Uranus.” – Craig Ferguson
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Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky