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Starstruck

This Week's Night Sky: Hunt Down Dwarf Planet Ceres

You've seen the closeup pictures of Pluto; now you can catch a glimpse of a dwarf planet yourself with just binoculars.

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NASA’s Dawn spacecraft captured this stunning crescent view of dwarf planet Ceres as it orbits. Skywatchers can see the giant rock for themselves in Earth’s skies this week. 


Pluto isn't the only dwarf planet in our solar system. This week, its fellow dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, makes a tempting target for binocular skyhounds, while the moon sneaks up to pretty stellar sights.

Meteors Sprinkle  

Beginning Monday, it may be worth keeping an eye out for shooting stars from the Southern Delta Aquarid meteor shower. While the shower won’t be peaking for over a week, some meteors will start to be visible in the hours before dawn.  

With the moon out of the way early mornings this week, the skies should be optimal for catching the shower as it begins to ramp up.

Individual meteors from this shower can be traced back to their radiant, which is their namesake constellation Aquarius, the water bearer, which appears in the southeast in the overnight hours.

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This skychart shows the Delta Aqaurid meter shower, radiant in the constellation Aquarius, now visible in the southeast late night skies. 


Arcturus

One of the closest and brightest giant stars to Earth will be easy to find after nightfall on Tuesday thanks to the moon forming a triangular pattern with nearby Spica.  

Arcturus, the lead star in the constellation Bootes, the herdsman, is 37 light-years away and is the fourth brightest star in the night sky. It pins down the constellation, which when traced out looks like a giant celestial kite or ice cream cone.

By the next night, Wednesday, the moon will now have moved eastward and paired with Spica in the Virgo constellation.

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Giant orange star Arcturus marks the trip of a giant celestial triangle that has blue-white Spica and the moon at its base on Tuesday night.


Double Star

In the evening sky on Friday, look for the moon to point to the second brightest star in the constellation Libra, called Zubenelgenubi.

Train your binoculars on this magnitude 2.8 stellar point of light and you can see it as a wide double star about 77 light-years distant. The two stars are actually moving through space together and take about 200,000 years to orbit each other. They are about 5,500 times farther apart from each other than Earth is from the sun.

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Dwarf planet Ceres is at its brightest in Earth’s skies for 2015 on Saturday near the Teapot asterism, in the constellation Sagittarius.


Ceres Brightest

Pluto’s fellow dwarf planet Ceres is at opposition on Saturday, when it is directly opposite the sun from Earth’s perspective, making it the brightest it will be in Earth’s skies for 2015. Ceres will be visible from dusk until dawn.  

Located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter at 255 million miles (410 million kilometers) from the sun, Ceres has traditionally been thought of as the largest asteroid in the inner solar system, yet only six percent the diameter of Earth. Today, as NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is now in its third mapping orbit of Ceres, Earthbound skywatchers get a chance to see it for themselves.

While Pluto remains a challenging target and can be seen only through larger backyard telescopes, Ceres at 7.5 magnitude should be a fairly easy target to spot with nothing more than binoculars. Tonight it lies within the borders of the southern constellation Sagittarius to the far left of the giant Teapot asterism. To help track down Ceres, check out this detailed finder chart at astronomy.com.

Clear skies!

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter, Facebook, and his website.

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