Vesta Rules the February Dusk Skies

The brave new world of 4 Vesta snaps into focus. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Missing out on the morning planetary action?February sees all five naked eye planets in the dawn sky, though that’s about to change in March. But the good news is, now is the time to hunt for a sometimes planet, sometimes asteroid in the early evening.We’re talking about 4 Vesta. The 4th identified resident of the asteroid belt, discovered by Heinrich Olbers in 1807, Vesta made its way into many planetary listings in the 19th century before its demotion to asteroid. It then enjoyed a very brief six month resurgence as a planet in 2006 along with Ceres and Eris (nee Xena) before the International Astronomical Union demoted the lot along with Pluto to the realm of the dwarf planets.Such are the whims of the universe. 4 Vesta is actually the second largest asteroid belt member, and the brightest asteroid as seen from the Earth, shining at magnitude +5.5 near opposition—bright enough to see with the unaided eye—Vesta can be seen from a good dark sky site if you know exactly where to look for it.February 2016 sees Vesta about 50 degrees above the western horizon at sunset, right along the Cetus-Pisces border. Vesta is worth tracking down this month, as it moves south of and parallel to another solar system resident: +5.9 magnitude Uranus. Follow both Vesta and Uranus, and you can see the difference in distance between the two betrayed by their motion: Vesta covers 10 degrees through the 29 day leap month, while Uranus spans just over one degree. Vesta and Uranus are 2.9 AU and 20.5 AU away from the Earth this month, respectively. A fitting pairing with the ice giant world in the icy month of February.The waxing crescent Moon also pays the pair a visit, passing between the two —> Read More