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March 2003: Asteroid Vesta in Virgo

Many thousands of asteroids (or minor planets) circle the Sun, the majority of them streaming through the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. As a general rule, they're not visible without a telescope, and only rarely does one come close enough to Earth to be viewed with binoculars -- or the naked eye. Such is the case with Asteroid Vesta this March and April.

Vesta now resides in the constellation Virgo, the virgin. Around 10:30 p.m. on March 1 (9:30 p.m. March 15, 8:30 p.m. April 1), the majestic maiden stands upright on your eastern horizon, stretching halfway to the summit of the sky. Throughout March, the asteroid lingers near her arm -- as if it's a stone adorning her bracelet.

Even without knowing Virgo's whereabouts, you can star hop to Vesta from the Big Dipper. During the windy month of March, it appears in the northeast at nightfall -- though it might look more like a kite than a dipper. The bowl stands atop the starlit handle, which drifts below like a kite's tail.

At mid evening, extend the arc of the Big Dipper handle downward to find two brilliant stars. Yellow-orange Arcturus, the brighter of the two, shines to your left while blue-white Spica sparkles to the right. The asteroid resides to the upper right of Arcturus and the upper left of Spica. (See star map).*

In early March, Vesta stands between two modest stars: Vindemiatrix and Delta. Sharing the same binocular field with either star, it snuggles a bit closer to Delta, the dimmer one. Through binoculars, Vesta looks like a star (asteroid means "star-like") -- but unlike true stars, asteroids MOVE through the constellations. After a few days, see if you notice.

Given dark skies, sharp-eyed people should be able to catch this tantalizing world from the asteroid belt with the eyes alone. Passing closest to Earth on March 31, it appears brightest in late March and early April.

* If you want access to a more detailed map than I provided, check out page 101 of the April 2003 issue of SKY & TELESCOPE magazine, often found at public libraries.
Map of Vesta's Travels


Another March Feature: Jupiter & the Beehive