The name of the seventh planet in our solar system frequently evokes giggles and crude jokes during junior high science classes, but Uranus is actually an improvement over its original name. Just as the singer Prince Rogers Nelson was known as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince,” our solar system has “The Planet Formerly Known as George.”
Uranus is the third-largest planet in terms of radius and the fourth-largest in terms of mass. Despite its enormous size, it was one of the last of the planets to be discovered. At its nearest point, Uranus is a staggering 746 million miles from Earth, eluding the sharpest-eyed astronomers for millennia.
The planet owes its discovery to William Hershel, who, in March 1781, turned his attention and his telescope to a dim light in the sky. As he watched the movement of the light, he concluded it was not a star, as previously assumed. Instead, he determined it must be a comet or even a planet.
Hershel notified the astronomy community about his discovery. Fellow astronomers calculated the orbit of the object and confirmed that Hershel had, indeed, discovered a new planet. It was the seventh planet to be discovered in our solar system and the only one whose existence was confirmed in the 18th century.
King George III appointed Herschel as the official Court Astronomer. Hershel returned the favor by naming his new discovery Georgium Sidus, Latin for “The Star/Planet Of George.” The planet went by this name for the next 70 years until the scientific community agreed on another name that would fit with the convention of naming planets after deities from mythology.
It was Johann Bode who suggested Uranus, in reference to the Greek god of the sky, who was the grandfather of Zeus (Jupiter) and father of Cronus (Saturn). In 1850, Her Majesty’s Nautical Almanac Office officially changed the name of the seventh planet from “George” to “Uranus,” to the dismay of all the Georges out there but to the delight of all schoolboys.
Read more fun facts about astronomy.
Read more fun facts about names.