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Autumn Blues

by Perry Pezzolanella

Decades ago, both Uranus and Neptune were summer planets enjoyed during the humid, short nights. Now Neptune is best seen during the lengthening chilly nights of early autumn and Uranus is nudging into the downright cold nights of late autumn. The period from September to mid-November offer several clear nights to observe their distinct bluish color before the onslaught of winter’s furry. Under clear, moonless skies in the dark countryside, it is surprisingly quite easy to find Uranus and Neptune with the help of the finder charts that accompany this article.

Uranus (magnitude +5.6) and Neptune (magnitude +7.8) are dim because they orbit the Sun at a distance of 1.8 and 2.7 billion miles, respectively. In the dim depths of the outer Solar System, daytime sunlight is no brighter than a clear evening sky on Earth shortly after sunset. Both planets are about four times larger than Earth, slightly over 30,000 miles in diameter, and have thick atmospheres that are completely cloudy. The small amount of methane (3%) in Neptune’s atmosphere absorbs the red component of sunlight and scatters the blue creating a beautiful blue planet. Uranus does not appear as blue because it has a less methane (2%) and unlike Neptune it has a ruddy haze which shifts its color towards the green giving it a turquoise hue. These colors are dramatic whenever they are near stars of contrasting colors.

Uranus spends 2022 in Aries well to the right of the Pleiades with not many guide stars near it making it a bit of a challenge to find until it nears the Pleiades by 2025. Neptune is in Aquarius and a bit easier to find with the Circlet of Pisces acting as a nice starting point above it for star hopping. Neptune will be at opposition on September 16 while Uranus will be at opposition on November 9. Rising at sunset and setting at sunrise, both worlds will be up all night on these dates. They will remain in the evening sky for the rest of the year and into early 2023 with Neptune fading into the evening twilight by February and Uranus by April.

Given a night of steady seeing, a small telescope should be capable of resolving the discs revealing the colors of these remote worlds; however, both planets are too far away to observe cloud detail or moons unless the telescope has an aperture of at least 16 inches. Uranus is 3.8 arcseconds across and Neptune is 2.4 arcseconds across. The planets appear distinctly different with Uranus having a rich turquoise hue while Neptune displays a chilly, icy-blue disc.

The Barton-Brown Observatory (BBO) at the Waterville Public Library houses a research grade, 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with superior optics in the relatively dark skies south of Utica’s bright city lights that consistently reveals Uranus as a true turquoise globe and, during nights of perfect seeing, two of its five largest moons, Oberon and Titania, are visible. The other three moons of Uranus: Umbriel, Ariel, and Miranda, are dimmer and have yet to be seen; all five moons shine at magnitude +14 to +15. Neptune is a chilly-bluish, tiny globe with Triton shining nearby most of the time, but quite dim at magnitude +13.5.

Using a telescope of at least 16” such as the one at the BBO may increase the chances of seeing, but more likely imaging, faint detail on Uranus and even Neptune. Both planets have been active for several years with a bright polar hood on Uranus and large dark spots on Neptune with Neptune being the more active of the two. Modern technology is making it possible for amateurs to capture images of storms on both planets once reserved for the pros with giant telescopes. With the highest magnification that seeing will allow, there is a reasonably decent chance of photographing cloud detail. Observing these bluish worlds will add a splash of color to the chilly autumn landscape and are always rewarding to find.