By Tim Lambert
In 1781 William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus. Since ancient times only 6 planets had been known, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The discovery of a previously unknown planet was a landmark and it made William Herschel famous. Herschel wanted to name the new planet Georgium Sidus after George III but instead it was given the name Uranus. (Uranus was an ancient Greek god of the sky).
Meanwhile in 1787 William Herschel also discovered 2 of the moons of Uranus, Titania and Oberon. Two more moons of Uranus, Ariel and Umbriel were discovered in 1851 by William Lassell. Miranda was discovered in 1948. Many more moons have since been discovered around Uranus. Today Uranus is known to have 27 moons.
As early as 1784 somebody calling himself Mr Vivenair wrote a story about a trip to Uranus in a balloon. However Uranus featured little in science fiction.
In 1977 rings were discovered around Uranus. Then in 1986 Voyager 2 reached Uranus. It sent back detailed images of Uranus and its rings and discovered 11 new moons.
Neptune was discovered in 1846. It was named after the Roman god of the sea. The same year Triton, one of the moons of Neptune was discovered.
Nereid, another of the moons of Neptune was discovered in 1949. In 1976 rings were discovered around Neptune.
In 1989 Voyager 2 reached Neptune. So far its the only probe to reach the planet. Voyager 2 sent back detailed photos of the Neptune. It also flew close by the largest moon of Neptune, Triton. Voyager 2 also discovered several more moons orbiting Neptune. Today Neptune is known to have 13 moons.
Neptune appears in few science fiction stories (Perhaps because Neptune is so far from Earth and until recently little was known about it). However in 1930 Olaf Stapleton wrote a book called First and Last Men. At the end of the story the human race migrates to Neptune.
Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 and at first it was considered a planet. It was named after the Roman god of the dead. (The name Pluto was suggested by an 11 year old girl called Venetia Burney). Then in 1978 a moon of Pluto called Charon was discovered. (In Greek mythology Charon was the boatman who ferried the dead across the River Styx). In 2005 two small moons around Pluto were discovered. They are named Nix and Hydra. Two more moons have since been discovered around Pluto. However in 2006 Pluto was downgraded from a planet to a dwarf planet.
In 1996 the Hubble telescope took photos of Pluto. The New Horizons probe was launched by NASA in 2006. It reached Pluto and Charon in July 2015.
Meanwhile in 2003 astronomers discovered a dwarf planet called Haumea. In 2005 they discovered another dwarf planet was called Eris. (Eris was Greek goddess of discord). It has a moon called Dysnomia. Also in 2005 a dwarf planet called Makemake was discovered. There are probably many more to be discovered.
A brief history of Space Exploration
A brief history of Mars
A brief history of the planet Mercury
A brief history of Venus
A brief history of Science
A brief history of Jupiter and Saturn
Last revised 2019