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Find the Seventh Planet


Week of Oct. 4-10, 2015

Last week, I challenged you to find an asteroid. OK, it was a tough one. But this week my challenge is a bit easier ... finding the seventh planet of our solar system.

Just how many planets orbit our sun? Well, when I was in school we knew of nine, but today — with Pluto having been reclassified as a dwarf planet — the official number is eight.

But back in the good ol' days — about 234 years ago, for example — when life was simpler — every astronomer and school child knew the answer. There were six planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, five of which people could see wandering the starry heavens over time. And that's all that were ever known since the dawn of time.

That's why, in 1781, the world was stunned when musical composer and amateur astronomer William Herschel announced his discovery of a seventh planet. It was named Uranus after Ouranos, the ancient Greek god of the sky.

Uranus is, without a doubt, the most mispronounced planetary name in the English language. You may, of course, say it any way you'd like, but the proper pronunciation is YOU-rah-nus.

What's surprising about Uranus is that it wasn't found earlier — much earlier — for, you see, the planet can sometimes be spotted with the naked eye. In fact, right now is one of those times and, if you've never seen our seventh planet, this is a great time to begin your search.

Uranus reaches its opposition — the point in its orbit where it lies closest to Earth — on Monday, Oct.

11, and for the following week or so will rise in the east not long after sunset.

Finding Uranus takes some patience, but it's not too tough. First locate the faint double string of stars known as Pisces, the fishes, in the east. Then find the third star up from the bottom — on the right-hand string of stars, and aim binoculars just to its lower right.

Here you may be able to spot Uranus as a dim point of light; through a small telescope, the planet appears as a distinct, though tiny, blue-green disk.

Once you know exactly which dot of light is Uranus and can identify the stars around it, try searching for it with your eyes alone. If you have good vision and a clear, dark rural sky far from city light pollution, you may be surprised by how easy this is!

Now if Uranus is this simple to spot with the unaided eye, why hadn't the ancients done so? And if they had, how might that have changed history?

After all, the five visible planets (plus the sun and moon) lent importance to the number "seven", and we see it everywhere: there are seven days of the week, seven rungs of perfection, seven emblems of the Buddha, the seven gates of Thebes, seven wonders, and on and on.

So it's only natural to wonder how things might be different had there been eight — instead of seven — significant bodies that traveled the heavens? It's only by chance that there aren't.

Just a little something to ponder as you're gazing skyward this week.

Visit Dennis Mammana at To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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