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February 2010: Asteroid Vesta at Its Brightest for the Year!

Asteroid shines in front of Leo the Lion

The asteroid Vesta brightens into a rather tantalizing binocular target throughout February 2010. The whole trick to seeing Vesta is to know right where to look for this world. That's where the constellation Leo the Lion and some star-hopping tricks come in handy.
We use the Big Dipper to star-hop to the constellation Leo, and then use Leo to inch our way to Vesta, the 3rd largest body in the asteroid belt. Sporting a diameter of some 330 miles, Vesta's diameter is less than one-sixth of that of our Moon. The asteroid belt houses many thousands of little rocky worlds that orbit the Sun in between the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter.

Big Dipper "Pointer Stars" Point to Leo

Big Dipper on February EveningsAt nightfall and early evening, the Big Dipper stands on its handle in your northeast sky. Many people know how to use the Big Dipper pointer stars (Dubhe and Merak) to find Polaris the North Star. Simply draw a line through these same two pointer stars to locate Leo the Lion, but go in the opposite direction. Click here for a sky chart.
The photo of the Big Dipper on the right, courtesy of jpstanley's photostream.
Leo sports a very distinctive grouping of stars called The Sickle. It looks like a backwards question mark, with Leo's brightest star, Regulus, dotting the bottom. Here is a sky chart of the constellation Leo.

Star-hop to the Colorful Double Star: Algieba and 40 Leonis

Star-hop your way to the second brightest star of the question mark - Algieba (also called Gamma Leonis) - which appears as a wide double star through binoculars. The secondary star goes by the name 40 Leonis. These stars are not physically related but align along the same line of sight by happenstance. The contrasting colors enhance the beauty of the stellar couple, with Algieba radiating orange while 40 Leonis glows white, perhaps tinged with blue.

Signpost to Vesta: Algieba and 40 Leonis

These two stars serve as your guidepost to the asteroid Vesta. What's especially cool is that Vesta will fly right in between these Sickle stars on the nights of February 15, 16 and 17. But don't expect Vesta to look like much through binoculars, or even the telescope. It'll only look like a faint star. And if you're not sure whether that pinpoint of light is Vesta or not, look again on another night. Vesta will have moved relative to the background stars.

Solar System Bodies Move Through "Fixed" Stars

In fact, this is how solar system objects such planets, asteroids and comets were discovered in the first place. After a while, solar system bodies betray themselves, because they move while the stars remain fixed.
Take advantage of your golden opportunity to see the asteroid Vesta. In 2010, it comes closest to Earth and shines at its brightest best in February. What's more, it'll be out for viewing for most, if not all the night long in February 2010. Use this sky chart, courtesy of Sky & Telescope magazine, to star-hop to that treasure that awaits rediscovery in the asteroid belt!

copyright 2010 by Bruce McClure

January 2010 Feature * March 2010 Feature

Photo of Vesta on February 14 and February 16, 2010

Sky & Telescope Sky Chart of Asteroid Vesta