There’s a rare treat on the horizon this week when the planet Uranus makes its closest approach to Earth. This occurs simultaneous to its opposition with the Sun, and it means conditions are just right for catching a glimpse of the elusive planet with the naked eye.
The reason seeing Uranus with the naked eye is so exciting it because it was the first planet discovered with the use of a telescope, but right now you might be able to see it without the aid of telescopes or binoculars.
William Herschel discovered Uranus in 1781. Though he was born in Germany, Herschel migrated to England at the age of 19 as a musician, and didn’t start his serious astronomical research until he was in his 30s.
When he discovered Uranus, Herschel had hoped to honor his patron, King George of England with the discovery, suggesting to his colleagues that they call the new planet "Georgium sidus" (the Georgian planet). But this was in the 1780s, and at the time, King George wasn’t such a popular guy, what with the rebellion of his feisty American colonists and the French spoiling for revolution.
It was German astronomer Johan Elert Bode who first suggested the name Uranus for the planet, but even this name didn’t achieve common use for another 50+ years!
The name Uranus refers to the Greek God of the Heavens, about whom it was written: "Since nothing is, strictly speaking, created, but procreated, some have said that Uranus (Sky) is the son of Gaia (Earth), who came into being shortly after Chaos. Uranus, who was the first ruler of the Universe, covered Gaia on every side and became, in time, the abode of the gods."
Herschel died in England in 1822, at the age of 84, which coincidentally is the same number of years it takes his planet, Uranus, to complete one orbit of the Sun. Look for Uranus in the southeast this week, a blue-green dot among the stars of Pisces.