Leicester to lead Royal Astronomical Society livestream of Uranus

View of Uranus captured by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1986. Credit: NASA/JPL

Astronomers and planetary scientists from the University of Leicester are to lead dedicated livestream observations of Uranus in partnership with the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) to bring live imagery of the planet to the public in the UK and around the world.

Members of the public are invited to view live footage of the ‘ice giant’ – 50,000 kilometres across and almost 3 billion kilometres from Earth – as the experts look to measure and analyse various aspects of its atmosphere across three days of observations using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) on Mauna Kea, Hawai’i.

Uranus was first discovered by Sir William Herschel in 1781, using a small telescope in his back garden in Bath. Herschel went on to become the founding president of the RAS in 1820.

The collaboration follows a hugely successful RAS livestream in 2020, also led by Leicester scientists, which observed the shadow of the moon Ganymede pass across the face of Jupiter in real time.

Observations of Uranus will take place from 9.00am to 4.55pm (BST) on Friday 8, Saturday 9 and Sunday 10 October 2021, and will be available to watch on the RAS YouTube channel.

The observations will be led by Leicester PhD student Emma Thomas. She said:

“Over these three days of observations, we will be building up the most detailed infrared map of Uranus that we have ever completed (a full 360 degrees longitude), and by doing this we hope to detect and fully map the southern infrared aurora for the first time ever.”

“My area of research is to investigate and fully map the infrared aurorae at Uranus, which is done by analysing spectra (looking at the different wavelengths of light received from Uranus) from telescopes such as IRTF, Keck (also on Hawai’i), and the Very Large Telescope in Chile.”

“The aurora of Uranus has been a long-standing mystery since the first detection of near infrared emissions back in 1993, but in the last four years we have begun to take the first steps in understanding the weird and wonderful aurorae we see at Uranus.”

Dr Tom Stallard, Associate Professor in Planetary Astronomy at the University of Leicester, added:

“We were blown away by the reaction to our livestream of Jupiter last year and look forward to collaborating with the RAS once again as we focus on Uranus.

“It’s really exciting to be able to share the thrill of live observations such as this, as the team – led by Emma – look to map the emissions from a previously uncharted corner of our Solar System.”

Lucinda Offer, Education, Outreach and Events Officer at the Royal Astronomical Society, added:

“We’re really excited to be able to share this live stream event from Hawai’i with the public so people can learn more about what astronomers do, as the teams in Leicester, Hawai’i and at the RAS follow in Herschel’s footsteps. 240 years on Uranus is still a mysterious world, and in celebration of Women in Space for World Space Week, Emma and her colleagues will show us how astronomers are slowly unlocking its secrets.”

As well as real-time observations of Uranus, each live stream will also feature expert guests from the Royal Astronomical Society, University of Leicester and other research institutions including the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). There will be opportunities to put questions to the scientists and more on how our understanding of this distant planet has changed over the past two and a half centuries.

Leicester scientists have also been allocated time on the prestigious James Webb Space Telescope, the most advanced observatory ever built, after it launches later in 2021.

Dr Henrik Melin and Dr Leigh Fletcher, both of the School of Physics and Astronomy, are among the experts who will study composition of the planet’s atmosphere, in a range of different spectra using JWST. Dr Melin is considered a world expert in measuring the Uranus ionosphere with infrared measurements, and recently presented his research at the Royal Society.

Guests can register for the livestream free of charge on Eventbrite.