The brightest asteroid, Vesta, is putting in an appearance in the sky this spring. You can find it easily using binoculars, in the constellation of Leo, the Lion.
The asteroid belt, which consists of millions of tiny bodies orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter, looks very prominent on many diagrams of the Solar System, but the actual bodies are quite hard to find. In fact, none of them were known until 1801, when the largest of them, Ceres, was spotted by Giuseppe Piazzi from Palermo in Sicily. The discovery of Vesta came in 1807, and it turned out to be the brightest asteroid, just a little brighter than Ceres.
You can spot Vesta for yourself this spring as it comes to its closest to Earth – still a whopping 200 million miles – in early March. Throughout February and March it will be fairly easy to spot, although you’ll need to use our map below as it looks identical to any of the stars of similar brightness in the area. At its brightest it will be magnitude 6.0, on the astronomical scale where the fainter stars have higher numbers.
The only way to be sure you’ve seen it will be to look on more than one occasion – and it will be the only star that has moved. But if you use the map with care you can’t mistake it.
How to find Vesta
First, locate Leo. This is rising in the late evening, and by about 10 pm it is quite high up in the south-east. Its main stars are not particularly bright but its shape strongly resembles that of a crouching lion – which is why that part of the sky has been known as Leo for thousands of years.
Now use the map below to locate Vesta within Leo. The circle shows the approximate field of view of typical binoculars. Stars are shown fainter than Vesta.
Here is a photograph taken by Paul Sutherland showing Vesta – indicated by the white lines – taken on 18 January 2021.
In case you’re wondering about the title of this story, there’s a famous brand of matches called Swan Vestas. Vesta was the Roman god of the hearth.