Opposition of Uranus: Icy Planet Will Be Visible to the Naked Eye Tonight—Here's How to See It

Uranus as seen by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1986. NASA/JPL-Caltech

It's a very good time to look at the sky, thanks to a new moon tonight that's keeping the sky dark. That will mean a stunning view of the Orionid meteor shower this weekend, but it will also offer stargazers an excellent view of the planet Uranus.

That's because Earth is currently nestled in between Uranus and the sun, which in astronomical terms is called opposition. (To picture this, imagine a clock: Uranus's orbit is the tip of the minute hand, Earth's is the tip of the hour hand, and the sun is where the arms meet in the middle. When Uranus is in opposition, the two hands point in the same direction, as if it were noon. Just remember this is an oversimplification, since planets actually travel in slightly oval orbits.)

Opposition puts Uranus up high in the night sky, away from the bright sun, where it's easy to see. Mountains or buildings on the horizon can't get in the way, and it will stand out as much as possible against the dark background—perhaps even brightly enough to see with your naked eye, although binoculars will certainly improve your odds. The Earth-sandwich arrangement also means that Uranus is as close to the Earth as it ever comes, giving your odds of spotting it a little boost.

The planet will appear to be in the constellation Pisces—"look for a tiny blue-green disk to pop out against the background of fainter stars," National Geographic recommends. It also calculates that the planet will still be about 1.7 billion miles away, a distance light needs almost three hours to cross.

Uranus is distinctive for its light blue coloring and sideways rotation. And if you think the planet's current name is ridiculous, just remember it was very nearly named George (or rather, Georgium Sidus, for some Latin formality), because its discoverer, British astronomer William Herschel, was trying to suck up to his patron King George III. Much of what we know about Uranus now comes from the Voyager 2 spacecraft, the only one we've ever sent to visit it in a visit that was shorter than an American workday.

Uranus comes into opposition about every year (that's every Earth year, not every Uranian year, which is about 84 times longer). But next year's alignment will coincide with a full moon, which will make the planet trickier to spot—so be sure to catch it tonight.