Asteroids have been an interesting subject for amateur astronomers since the first one - Ceres - was discovered in 1801. Ceres turned out to be the largest of the many thousands of asteroids that are known to circle the Sun. Another asteroid, Vesta, is not much smaller but is the brightest of the bunch.

Vesta, the fourth asteroid ever discovered, reaches naked-eye visibility when it passes closest to the Earth in its orbit. This year, Vesta’s approach is especially favorable, the closest in 20 years. As soon as the Moon moves out of the picture (Full Moon is on June 27) you can give it a try.

Through the summer months, Vesta will be making a slow loop in the sky close to the familiar "tea pot" shape of the constellation Sagittarius. Planet Saturn is gleaming bright, also in Sagittarius, and will help you in finding the much dimmer asteroid.
In early summer, around 10 p.m. (daylight savings time) Sagittarius will be seen rising low in the southeast- south southeast. Sagittarius is seen at its highest, due south, around 1 a.m. at this time of year.

Vesta peaked at magnitude +5.3 on June 19th and is fading slowly, to magnitude +6.0 in mid-July. You will need fairly dark skies, away from light pollution to pick it out with eyes alone. It will be indistinguishable from any faint star although there are none as bright right nearby.

A good star chart showing Vesta’s path, such as one published at Sky and Telescope’s website, will help you spot it and track it night to night.

Watching it nightly as it shifts position against the background stars can be fascinating. Stars just don’t seem to behave that way!
In truth all of the stars are constantly moving in their own paths. They are so far from us that on a human scale the star patterns never seem to change.

You will most likely need binoculars to find Vesta, if there is any haze, moonlight or light pollution in that part of the sky. Saturn is easy to see. A short way to the upper left of Saturn is a star, Mu Sagittari, magnitude +3.8. Extending an imaginary line from Saturn to this star just a little more than twice as far while bending the line down, brings you to Vesta.

Both Saturn and Vesta are slowly moving so the placement in respect to one another will shift.

This is not one of those asteroids you have to wonder about crashing into the Earth. Much attention has been given in recent decades about tracking small asteroids that have a path that could one day bring them in harm’s way. Vesta is among the thousands of known asteroids safely orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. This "close approach" bring Vesta to "only" 106.3 MILLION miles away.

Vesta was discovered in 1807. It is the second largest in its class, next to Ceres, 326.2 miles across. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft entered orbit around Vesta on July 16, 2011, and left orbit September 5, 2012 on its way to Ceres where it remains in orbit.

After the Moon is past full and the evening sky is dark, you will have a better chance at finding Vesta and picking out the constellations. Under a dark, clear sky, the Milky Way Band is seen as especially wide and bright, in the direction of Sagittarius. You are literally looking towards the bright central hub of the spiral galaxy we call home.

For more information on Vesta’s path see:

Keep looking up!