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Vesta the brightest asteroid reaches opposition this year in Taurus on December 9th. The asteroid is easy to locate as it is currently positioned close to Jupiter and first magnitude orange/red star Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation. This month Jupiter also reaches opposition and at magnitude -2.8, the giant planet dazzles and dominates the night sky.

Vesta can on occasions reach 5th magnitude and therefore naked eye visibility, but this time it does not attain such brightness. On December 9th, the asteroid peaks at magnitude 6.4 and although just below naked eye visibility, it is still a very easy binocular / small telescope target, even from relatively light polluted areas. Since Vesta travels quickly against the "fixed" background stars, its movement can be tracked even on a nightly basis.

Vesta imaged on September 5, 2012 by the departing NASA Dawn spacecraft (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Discovery

Vesta was the fourth asteroid to be discovered on the 29th March 1807 by the German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers. Along with the other asteroids known at the time (Ceres, Pallas and Juno), Vesta was initially classified as a planet in its own right and subsequently was given its own planetary symbol. With further discoveries, all in the region between Mars and Jupiter, the general term asteroids was coined to describe them. Much later in 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) defined a new classification of dwarf planet of which the largest asteroid Ceres is now a member.

Magnitude

Despite being only the third largest body in the main asteroid belt with a diameter of 530km (330 miles), Vesta is the brightest asteroid. It appears brighter than even the much larger dwarf planet Ceres and the slightly larger asteroid Pallas. This is because its approaches closer to the Earth than the other two and also has a much higher reflective surface. At favourable oppositions, the maximum visual magnitude of Vesta is 5.1 and therefore easily within naked eye visibility, especially from a dark site.

At opposition this year, Vesta will peak at magnitude 6.4.

Location

The beautiful zodiac constellation of Taurus is where to find Vesta in December. The famous constellation represents the head and shoulders of a bull, depicted as charging at neighbouring Orion. Aldebaran denotes the magnificent red eye of the bull with Vesta located only a few degrees to the east. Surrounding Aldebaran is the famous Hyades open cluster and located about 20 degrees to the northwest of Vesta is the most famous open cluster in the sky, The Pleiades (M45). Unmistakable Jupiter is a few degrees north and west of Vesta.

Ceres, Vesta and Jupiter during late November and December 2012

Ceres, Vesta and Jupiter during late November and December 2012 - pdf format

Detailed chart showing Vesta during late November and December 2012

Detailed chart showing Vesta during late November and December 2012 - pdf format

Vesta Data Table

DateRA (J2000)DEC (J2000)Apparent Magnitude
November 26,201205h 21m 49s17d 31m 29s6.7
November 27,201205h 20m 49s17d 32m 08s6.7
November 28,201205h 19m 48s17d 32m 50s6.7
November 29,201205h 18m 46s17d 33m 32s6.6
November 30,201205h 17m 43s17d 34m 17s6.6
December 01,201205h 16m 40s17d 35m 04s6.6
December 02,201205h 15m 36s17d 35m 52s6.6
December 03,201205h 14m 31s17d 36m 42s6.5
December 04,201205h 13m 26s17d 37m 34s6.5
December 05,201205h 12m 20s17d 38m 28s6.5
December 06,201205h 11m 14s17d 39m 24s6.5
December 07,201205h 10m 08s17d 40m 21s6.5
December 08,201205h 09m 01s17d 41m 21s6.5
December 09,201205h 07m 54s17d 42m 22s6.4
December 10,201205h 06m 47s17d 43m 25s6.4
December 11,201205h 05m 40s17d 44m 30s6.5
December 12,201205h 04m 34s17d 45m 38s6.5
December 13,201205h 03m 27s17d 46m 47s6.5
December 14,201205h 02m 21s17d 47m 58s6.5
December 15,201205h 01m 15s17d 49m 11s6.5
December 16,201205h 00m 09s17d 50m 27s6.5
December 17,201204h 59m 04s17d 51m 44s6.6
December 18,201204h 57m 60s17d 53m 04s6.6
December 19,201204h 56m 56s17d 54m 26s6.6
December 20,201204h 55m 53s17d 55m 50s6.6
December 21,201204h 54m 51s17d 57m 17s6.7
December 22,201204h 53m 50s17d 58m 45s6.7
December 23,201204h 52m 49s18d 00m 17s6.7
December 24,201204h 51m 50s18d 01m 50s6.7
December 25,201204h 50m 52s18d 03m 26s6.7
December 26,201204h 49m 55s18d 05m 05s6.8
December 27,201204h 48m 59s18d 06m 46s6.8
December 28,201204h 48m 05s18d 08m 29s6.8
December 29,201204h 47m 11s18d 10m 16s6.8
December 30,201204h 46m 19s18d 12m 04s6.8
December 31,201204h 45m 29s18d 13m 56s6.9