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Pallas: Huge asteroid visible from Earth

This week, the huge asteroid Pallas reaches opposition, being opposite to the sun in Earth's sky, making it a prime target for avid skywatchers with telescopes.

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That find was almost totally overshadowed by the discovery a year later of the planet Neptune, and asteroids have been relegated to a minor role in the solar system ever since. We now know thousands of them, but the four discovered in the first decade of the 19th century remain the largest and brightest.

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Other tantalizing sky targets

While you're out looking for Pallas, take the time to look for some deep sky objects. May and June are the months to hunt down galaxies but here are a couple of easier targets to start with, the globular clusters Messier 3 and Messier 5, both of which are well placed right now and make fine sights in a small telescope.

Messier 3 is the easiest to find, about half way between the bright star Arcturus and Cor Caroli, the smallish star all by itself tucked under the handle of the Big Dipper. Get your scope pointed at the right spot using your finder, then sweep the area with your low power eyepiece until you spot a ball of fuzz. That's what it will look like at first, but when you switch to a more powerful eyepiece, you'll see that it is actually a swarm of tiny stars.

Messier 5 is a bit trickier to find because it's in an area without many bright stars to guide you. Use Arcturus and Spica as your guides, the two brightest spring stars. You find them by extending the arc of the handle of the Big Dipper: "Arc to Arcturus, then speed on to Spica."

Make an imaginary equilateral triangle with Arcturus and Spica as two of the corners, then imagine the third corner to their lower left, and sweep in that area with your low power eyepiece until you spot M5, which looks a lot like M3. These are two of the finest globular clusters in the sky, each with at least a hundred thousand stars in them.

Once you've located these two clusters, you might try for a couple of galaxies. Messier 65 and 66 in Leo are among the brightest galaxies in the sky.

They are tucked just under the right angled triangle which forms the left half of the constellation Leo. In fact they are just below the star that marks the right angle. Look for two faint smudges of gray in your low power eyepiece.

Finding deep sky objects is much easier if you use a good star atlas and a pair of 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars to scout out the locations first.

A dark clear sky is another essential: deep sky hunting can't be done under suburban skies until you really know what you're looking for. I recommend Sky & Telescope's Pocket Sky Atlas (Sky) and Terence Dickinson's book NightWatch (Firefly) as guidebooks.

This article was provided to SPACE.com by Starry Night Education, the leader in space science curriculum solutions.

IN PICTURES: Asteroids