Who hasn’t been dazzled by the Red Planet these April nights? Come 10 o’clock, Mars shines brilliantly in the south accompanied by the the blue-white star Spica. But did you know that just a short distance away, asteroids Ceres and Vesta are making their rounds in the night sky too?
Ordinary binoculars will easily show both. Last night I stood in my driveway with a pair of 8x40s and hopped from Mars to Zeta Virginis and then to the “Vesta Triangle” and saw them in the same field of view. Vesta shines at magnitude 5.8, bright enough to be dimly visible with the naked eye from a dark sky. Talk about easy. I hardly had to try with binoculars.
Ceres, at magnitude 7, is fainter but well within easy reach from suburban skies. Now the cool part – both asteroids will be no more than a few degrees apart through July. That means they fit in the same binocular field of view, so if you find brighter Vesta, Ceres will always be nearby. Matter of fact, they’ll really get close come late June and early July. As we approach that time, I’ll provide additional maps.
If you’ve never seen an asteroid before except in close up photos taken by spacecraft, lower your expectations right now. They look exactly like stars. Even Ceres, the largest at 590 miles in diameter, is too small to appear more than stellar in even a large telescope. Vesta’s smaller yet – 330 miles wide – but brighter because it’s somewhat closer and also more reflective.
That’s OK. Getting to see the real thing is what skywatching’s about. I love the photos but honestly get more of a kick out of seeing the asteroids with my own eyes. When life gets tedious, I like to think of them silently cycling over my little patch of earth, Vesta 114 million miles away, Ceres 153 million.
Dawn’s Greatest Hits at Vesta – A Look at What We Learned (spiced up with guitar)
Coincidentally, both Vesta and Ceres, which orbit in the main asteroid belt, are the targets of NASA’s Dawn Mission. Dawn visited and studied Vesta from July 2011 to Sept. 2012 and revealed that the tiny world had something much in common with its big brothers, the planets. Vesta was once hot enough to melt and differentiate into an iron core, rocky mantle and crust like the terrestrial planets. Heat from the decay of radioactive elements like aluminum-26 caused heavier iron to trickle down to the core while lighter minerals floated to the top to form Vesta’s crust.
While Ceres can still be considered an asteroid it’s also a member of a select group of dwarf planets, bodies large enough to have crunched themselves into spheres through their own gravity but not big enough to clear the region they orbit of smaller asteroids. Dawn’s on its way to its final target, a rendezvous with Ceres next February. Unlike dry and rocky Vesta, Ceres shows signs of water and clay.
While you’re waiting for the next close up photos, why not go out on the next clear night and see them for yourself?