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Monday, July 18, 2011


Dawn Arrives at Vesta (see Vesta Tonight)

Image of Vesta taken by the dawn spacecraft on July 9, image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The Dawn Spacecraft successfully entered orbit around the asteroid Vesta on the 15th of July US time (that's the 16th here in Australia).

The first part of the ion-powered spacecrafts epic mission has now started. A one year orbit of the battered, potatoe shaped chunk of rock that is Vesta, taking high resolution images and analysing the composition of the surface.

The location of Vesta, looking east at 8:30 pm ACST, as seen from Adelaide. Similar views will be seen elswhere in the southern hemisphere at equivalent local times (click to embiggen).

While waiting for NASA to download the first high resolution images of Vesta, you can see Vesta for yourself. Vesta is one of the brightest asteroids, and for the next few weeks it is bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye, provided you have dark enough skies (and are viewing before the waning Moon rises).

But it is readily visible in even small binoculars. No matter whether you are using your eyesight or binoculars, if you look east between 8:30 and 10:30 pm you will see distinctive V shape group of stars that is part of the constellation of Capricornius

High power view of the area around Vesta, suitable for use with binoculars (click to embiggen).

Vesta is near the moderately bright star zeta Capricorni, making it very easy to find. Zeta Capricorni is the fourth star up and to the right of the brightest star in Capricornus (see image above).

If you are still unsure which one is is Vesta, Vesta moves significantly night to night, so it will be easy to determine which one is Vesta, and you can now follow it over the weeks, knowing one of humanities spacecraft is orbiting it.

A chart showing Vesta's location is here.

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