Vesta puts on a great rock show

Have you ever seen an asteroid? One of the largest in the solar system is putting on its brightest show for 18 years over the next couple of months – and you don’t need a telescope to see it.

Vesta becomes brighter than any other of these interplanetary vagabonds, due to its reflective surface. It can be seen with the unaided eye in perfect circumstances.

Vesta become brighter in May and June than at any time since 1989, reaching magnitude 5.4. It is currently best seen from mid-northern latitudes at around 3am.

The problem for many northern hemisphere observers is that it is to be found rather low in northern skies, close to the distinctive shape of Scorpius. However, binoculars should make it easy to spot in clear conditions.

The chart here, produced with the Equinox planetarium program, shows the path of Vesta through Ophiuchus over the next few week. It is not far from Jupiter in the sky which should make locating it easier.

Vesta is the second most massive minor planet in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, with a diameter of around 530km (330 miles). No space probe has been there yet, but samples of related meteorites have been found here on Earth and the asteroid has also been crudely imaged with the Hubble space telescope.

A more detailed chart for Vesta can be found at the Sky & Telescope website.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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