09 December 2012

Asteroid Sighting

Ceres and Vesta
Finding the major planets in the night sky is easy, since the biggest and nearest planets outshine most stars. But the more distant planets and the asteroids pose a challenge, as you need to use a star chart or other guide to locate these wanderers, and you'll need binoculars or a telescope to see them.

Right now, two of the biggest asteroids are fairly easy to spot, being located high in the night sky and nearby a variety of easy-to-locate landmarks. There are good articles with additional details on the web, including Sky & Telescope and MSNBC Space. The MSNBC article has some very simple diagrams showing the exact location of the asteroids Ceres and Vesta, as they wander through the constellation Taurus. Using binoculars, they should stand out as fairly bright points of light and be distinct against the backdrop of stars in Taurus. I am not an 'asteroid hunter' and don't have lots of experience finding these, but I have used binoculars and telescopes to find the faint outer planets Uranus and Neptune, and anticipate that Ceres and Vesta will be similar. I'll report findings here on the blog comments.

The NASA spacecraft Dawn is on a mission to visit both asteroids, having already orbited Vesta and now is en route to Ceres. (Note: although Ceres was historically classified as an asteroid, it has recently been reclassified to a Dwarf Planet, just like Pluto!)

Image courtesy of Sky & Telescope.

1 comment:

The Urban Astronomer said...

Report from San Francisco: I spent some time trying to locate Ceres and Vesta last night while also enjoying the Geminids. I acquainted myself with the view through binoculars from Aldeberan (in Taurus) to Jupiter, and over to the nearby stars in Auriga and Gemini, attempting to match up the location of the two asteroids to the locations I had seen on the star maps on the Sky & Telescope website. I didn't use printed maps while outside in my observing session, but simply tried to find brighter, rounder objects in the field of view. There were no obvious candidates, so I will try again in the next few days, and arm myself with more accurate sky maps.