Last week, One-Minute Astronomer alerted us to the fact that an asteroid would be easily visible in binoculars, easy to locate in Taurus, and bright enough at a 6.4 magnitude to reach near naked-eye visibility. That’s all it took for the Astro Babes to grab our binoculars and drive out to a dark spot this weekend.
Amy and I went in search of Vesta, first found by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1994. It’s a little smaller than the state of Arizona, is the second largest known asteroid in the asteroid belt, and is big enough to be considered a protoplanet. It reached its opposition on Dec. 8 and was very bright.
And, as usual, the hilarity ensued. After all these years of observing you’d think it would come a little easier, but somehow we always manage to turn it into a slapstick comedy routine. To make a long story short, we printed out some star charts and drove to and observed from two dark spots east of Green Bay, only to find when we got back to my place that we’d been looking at the wrong object. We did, however, make our final (and correct) observations right here from my driveway, but this time, we used technology.
When you observe with binoculars (which is primarily what Amy and I do) you lose your target every time you look away to study a star chart. There’s a lot of potential to lose your way, accompanied with a twinge of doubt that you actually saw your target.
But this time we started with a laptop and the free Stellarium program to get our bearings. Then, in the driveway, we used my new tablet and the Sky Safari Plus program, and adjusted its Finder Circle to 7° to match the field of view in our binoculars. We were able to zoom in and out on the neighboring star patterns until there was no doubt that we were observing our target
After struggling all these years with books and star charts, it’s so nice to have such powerful astronomy tools available that weigh just a few ounces and don’t require a marine battery to make them run. Makes you wonder what’s in store for the next 20 years.