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An asteroid could be visible with binoculars, or even the naked eye on Wednesday, February 17, 2010. No, it’s not coming close to Earth, although this second most massive object in the asteroid belt will be at its closest point to Earth in its orbit, about 211,980,000 kilometers (131,700,000 miles) away. Asteroid Vesta – one of the asteroids that the Dawn spacecraft will visit – will be at opposition on Wednesday, meaning it is opposite the sun as seen from Earth, and is closest to us. Vesta is expected to shine at magnitude 6.1, and that brightness should make it visible for those with clear skies and a telescope, but perhaps even those blessed with excellent vision and little or no light pollution. Vesta will be visible in the eastern sky in the constellation Leo, and will continue to be visible — although less so — in the coming months.
What makes this space rock so prominent these days? Along with its relative proximity at this point, a full half of the asteroid is being bathed by sunlight when seen from Earth, making it appear brighter. Another attribute working in the observer’s favor is that Vesta has a unique surface material that is not as dark as most main belt asteroids – allowing more of the sun’s rays to reflect off its surface.
For more info about observing Vesta, check out this article from Sky & Telescope.
If you get lucky enough to see Vesta, and want to learn more about it, check out this info on the Dawn mission website. Dawn is currently motoring its way through the asteroid belt, will begin its exploration of Vesta in the summer of 2011.