Mission 17: See an asteroid

February 18, 2010

Mission Objective: Asteroid

Equipment: Binoculars

Required Time: 5 minutes

Instructions: Go to Heavens Above or fire up Stellarium and find the position of the asteroid 4 Vesta. It would be pointless for me to post a map for you, because by the time you read this, it will have moved at least a little. But do it soonish, because tonight–actually as I write this–Vesta is at opposition and thus as close to Earth and as bright as it is going to get this year. Also, right now it is cruising past the shoulder of the constellation Leo, close to the bright stars Algieba (same binocular field) and Regulus (close enough to get you moving in the right direction), which are bright enough that you should be able to see them even through light pollution. Use binoculars because you’ll want that wide field of view for sweeping from Regulus up to Algieba and then finding Vesta. You don’t need a scope for this one because there is literally nothing to see; Vesta is so tiny and so far away that you will not see it as more than a point of light.

While you gaze on this little point of light in your binoculars, you can reflect on the facts that Vesta was considered a planet for about four decades following its discovery in  1807, and that we have pieces of it that were blasted off in an ancient collision and have fallen to Earth as meteorites. (We’re pretty sure that these meteorites are bits of Vesta because they have the same composition.)

Have fun!


  1. I just discovered why, 9 times out of 10, I can’t find things using the charts in S&T or Astronomy emails. I thought it was that they were too small to match any stars that I can see (in light polluted Phoenix). While this is somewhat true, the main issue I have is orientation. I’ve tried to use them as if they were oriented in the direction in which the object is located. Case in point, the diagram for Vesta. I would think the diagram would be correct if I’m facing east and hold it up to the sky. Well, in trying to orient it with what I see in Stellarium, it needs to be tilted at about a 45* angle. Now all the starts match, and now it makes sense!

    Still raining, so haven’t been out to find Vesta, but I think I know now where to look. BTW, for those having difficulty locating Regulus, it’s about half way between Mars and Saturn, or Mars and the eastern horizon, if Saturn isn’t up yet.

  2. I had good intentions tonight! I had my star map printed and my binoculars. When I got to choir practice tonight, the sky was clearing and looked to be sharp. My plan was to spend some time after practice – the church parking lot and grounds offer some better horizons than my house – to scope out Vesta. Well, after practice, walking out the door…it was overcast. Even the moon was barely making an appearance. Oh, well, I’ll pick another night, though the moon is getting too close to that area of the sky, so picking anything out will probably be too difficult, so it’ll probably be after the full moon……

  3. I’ve had two unbelievably clear nights here in Phoenix. I went out for a GLOBE at Night reading last night, but I don’t have a good east view, so I didn’t try to find Vesta. Tonight was luckily clear, too, and I tried from our church parking lot, where I have lower horizons and can maneuver around to avoid lights. I am pretty sure I picked out Vesta. I’ll try to get out the next few nights to make sure. The easiest way to confirm an asteroid sighting is to look a few times and make sure it moves in between.

    To show how clear the skies are, I can normally see Regulus, a mag 1 star (guessing from the chart) naked eye. Tonight I could see down to mag 3, and maybe some mag 4 stars. With binoculars (8×32) I was clearly down to mag 6 and maybe a few mag 7 stars. While I was out I took in Mars, the Orion nebulae, and the Pleiades. Saturn was not yet visible.

  4. Phil Harrington’s Binocular Universe has Vesta as the topic this month:


    (hope that works)

  5. Got out again tonight with my 10×40 binos. I found Vesta again, where I expected to, and it had moved from a week and a half ago, so I definitely pegged it.

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