See Ceres at opposition in the night sky this month

November 2021 is a great time to get acquainted with the asteroid belt's only official dwarf planet.

Dwarf planet Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dwarf planet Ceres reaches opposition – when it’s on the opposite side of Earth to the Sun – in the constellation of Taurus, the Bull, on 27 November 2021.

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Catch it at its closest approach to Earth when it’s visible at its highest point in the sky around midnight.

Its star-like point of light will shine at mag. +7.2, within the range of 10×50 binoculars.

For more stargazing advice, find out how to observe the planets in November or catch up with the latest episode of our Star Diary podcast.

Woman looking through binoculars
Ceres should be visible throughout November 2021 even through a modest pair of binoculars. Credit: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)

When to observe Ceres

A binocular object throughout the month, the best times to view Ceres will be:

  • 1 November from midnight UT
  • 15 November from 23:00 UT
  • 30 November from 22:00 UT

Between 1/2 November and 3/4 November the dwarf planet passes just south of the red giant star Aldebaran (alpha α Tauri) with the pair closest on the night of 2/3 November, separated by only 7 arcminutes.

Thereafter, Ceres crosses the Hyades open star cluster before exiting mid-month towards the constellation of Aries, the Ram.

How to see dwarf planet Ceres

A star chart showing the passage of Ceres across the night sky throughout November 2021
Catch Ceres with binoculars at opposition in Taurus on 27 November. Credit: Pete Lawrence

Shining at seventh magnitude, Ceres isn’t difficult to see, but normally you do need a few star-hopping skills to locate it.

Within the Hyades, this isn’t the case – assuming you can find the Hyades of course!

To find Ceres, follow the line of Orion’s Belt northwest to arrive at orange Aldebaran (Alpha (α) Tauri).

The Hyades is the sideways V-shaped pattern next to Aldebaran, which is visible to the naked eye and easy to find from the bright star.

Chart showing the Winter Hexagon in the evening sky
The stars in the Winter Hexagon, including Aldebaran, a useful marker for the Hyades and the Pleiades star clusters. Credit: Pete Lawrence

Aldebaran marks the start point for Ceres’s track across the cluster, the dwarf planet being located just to the east-southeast of the star at the start of the month.

It then moves to pass 10 arcminutes south of Aldebaran on the morning of 3 November.

Its subsequent passage takes Ceres through the main V-shape of the Hyades, before  eventually leaving the pattern on 20 November.

On 30 November, Ceres sits 2.3˚ northwest of Gamma (γ) Tauri, the star that marks the bottom point of the ‘V’.

Hyades star cluster by Philip Pugh.
Hyades star cluster by Philip Pugh.

Photographing Ceres at opposition

If you have equipment that can photograph at least down to mag. +8.0, and as long as you can image the main V-shape of the cluster in a single go, you should be able to record Ceres.

Your setup doesn’t need to be complex and recording stars down to mag. +8.0 with modern cameras isn’t difficult.

A tracking mount will make the job easier, but it’s not essential.

An illustration showing the passage of Ceres across the night sky throughout November 2021
Photograph Ceres throughout November 2021 as it passes close to Aldebaran (bottom left) and across the Hyades open cluster.

If you’re using a static mounted camera (on a tripod, for example) use the 500 Rule to work out the longest exposure you can make.

In astrophotography, the 500 rule is 500 divided by the focal length in millimetres of the lens you’re using.

This assumes you’re using a full-format 35mm sensor. If you’re using a camera with a slightly smaller APS-C-type sensor, you’ll need to multiply your lens’s focal length by the correction factor, which is typically 1.6x.

  • If you use a lens with a focal length of 500mm, the longest exposure you can take without stars starting to trail will be: 500 ÷ 500 = 1 second.
  • If you’re using a 50mm lens, you’ve got longer: 500 ÷ 50 = 10 seconds.
  • If you’re using a 110mm lens attached to an APS-C camera with a 1.6x frame correction value, your longest exposure time is: 500 ÷ (1.6 x 110) = 2.8 seconds.

Using a static, non-tracking, mount all you need to do is adjust your camera and lens settings to record stars down to at least mag. +8.0, in exposures shorter than that given by the 500 Rule.

Achieve this and dwarf planet Ceres will be perfectly placed for you to photograph throughout November.

Photographing Ceres, step-by-step

Step 1

Photograph Ceres step 01

A Hyades photo looks best if the cluster can ‘breathe’, so frame it with plenty of sky. A field of view measuring 12 x 8° allows the full month’s track with a decent sky margin to be recorded. A 170mm or shorter focal-length lens on a 35mm sensor achieves this. For APS-C sensors, use 110mm or shorter for a similar result.

Step 2

A remote shutter release helps to capture images of the deep sky, as you can start an imaging run without touching the camera. Credit: Pete Lawrence

Set the lens to manual. Select the lowest f/number and close by a stop or two to avoid frame edge distortions. Set the camera to ‘Manual’ mode. If you are using a tracking mount use a mid to low ISO setting, or select a mid ISO value for a fixed mount. A remote shutter release will help to stop any camera shake.

Step 3

Photograph Ceres step 03

Focus as accurately as possible. The bright star Aldebaran will be good for this and it should show up clearly if your camera has a ‘Live View’ option. If not, you’ll need to focus as accurately as possible through the viewfinder. If you’re struggling with Aldebaran, try focusing on bright Jupiter earlier in the evening.

Step 4

Photograph Ceres step 04

Once you’ve set the camera and lens, take a test exposure. If you have a static platform, use the 500 Rule to determine the longest non-trailed exposure (as described opposite). Examine the result and look for the mag. +8.0 stars we’ve circled here. If you can see them, then you are good to go for imaging Ceres.

Step 5

Photograph Ceres step 05

If you’re using a tracking mount, your exposure time is limited by the accuracy of the mount’s drive, polar alignment and the sky’s brightness. A lower ISO will help bring out the redder hues of the ancient Hyades stars. Typically, bracketing your exposures to 30”, 60” and 90” will give you a good range of results to pick from.

Step 6

Photograph Ceres step 06

Try to image the Hyades on as many clear nights as possible using the same setup. Keeping a similar orientation makes life a lot easier. Load your results into a layer-based editor, aligning the stars between layers. Flicking between layers will reveal Ceres’s movement as it tracks in front of the Hyades stars.

How Ceres became a dwarf planet

Ask anyone to name a dwarf planet and the answer is likely to be Pluto. Since its discovery by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, Pluto had been classed as a classical planet and it wasn’t ‘demoted’ to its dwarf status until 2006.

But it wasn’t the first planet to be reclassified. That honour belongs to the lesser-known dwarf planet Ceres, a 940km-wide world that has proven to pack a pretty good cryogenic punch.

How was Ceres discovered?

A lithograph from 1883 showing the Roman Goddess Ceres. Credit: Duncan1890 / Getty.
A lithograph from 1883 showing the Roman Goddess Ceres. Credit: Duncan1890 / Getty.

Ceres is named after the Roman goddess of corn and harvests (she also gives us the word cereal).

It was discovered on New Year’s Day 1801 by Catholic priest Giuseppe Piazzi at the Palermo Astronomical Observatory, Sicily.

Piazzi’s discovery was the result of a methodical search using the now discredited Titius-Bode Law, named in 1766 after German astronomer Johann Daniel Titius and popularised from 1772 by his countryman Johann Elert Bode.

This law formulaically predicted a pattern in the size of orbits of the planets and mathematically suggested that another planet existed in the gap between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

When Piazzi discovered this ‘missing planet’ he thought the new ‘moving star’ was a comet.

He observed its ‘slow’ and ‘rather uniform’ movement a further 24 times before becoming convinced it was not one.

He announced his sighting on 24 January 1801. At the time, it was the only known object between Mars and Jupiter, yet it soon became lost in the Sun’s glare and impossible to see.

Nevertheless, its orbit was mathematically predicted by the 24-year-old German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, one of the ‘Celestial Police’ – an elite group of planet-hunting astronomers who were also making observations of Ceres.

The Celestial Police were a group of 18th century astronomers who discovered asteroid Vesta.
The Celestial Police were a group of 18th century astronomers who discovered asteroid Vesta.

However, they kept discovering other objects in similar orbits, and slowly the realisation dawned that they were dealing with an entirely new class of bodies.

In 1802, with the discovery of Pallas, German-born British astronomer William Herschel dubbed this new class of bodies ‘asteroids’.

In 1851 Ceres was reclassified as an asteroid and designated 1 Ceres, since it had been the first to be discovered.

We know now it is the largest of many planetary leftovers forming the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and accounts for a third of the belt’s mass.

Why was Ceres reclassified?

IAU members cast their votes at the 2006 General Assembly. Credit: Credit: IAU/Robert Hurt (SSC)
IAU members cast their votes at the 2006 General Assembly, reclassifying Pluto as a dwarf planet. Credit: IAU/Robert Hurt (SSC)

There Ceres remained, classified as an asteroid, until August 2006, when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) – the body responsible for astronomical nomenclature and classification – determined the three criteria necessary for an object to be defined as a planet.

These are:

  • To have enough mass to be nearly rounded by its own gravity – known as hydrostatic equilibrium
  • To be in orbit around a star, not be a star itself nor a satellite of a planet
  • To have cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit

Failing to meet these new criteria, Pluto was demoted from being a classical planet to a dwarf planet – amid some controversy.

Ceres, however, was large enough to be rounded by its own gravity and was, therefore, officially upgraded from asteroid to dwarf planet – the only one inside Neptune’s orbit.

Vesta, once second to Ceres, took on the mantle of the largest asteroid.

What missions have explored Ceres?

Artist's impression of the Dawn spacecraft arriving at Ceres: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s impression of the Dawn spacecraft arriving at Ceres: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ceres has proven to be an exciting object to explore.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft – launched 2007 – arrived at Ceres in 2015, making it the first dwarf planet visited by a spacecraft.

As it flew over its cratered surface, Dawn discovered 130 mysterious ‘bright spots’, the brightest nestling within the recently formed 92km-wide Occator crater.

Variations in the gravitational field of Ceres led astronomers to believe they were seeing signs of an underground reservoir of salty water, possibly stretching for hundreds of kilometres and reaching depths of some 40km.

It’s speculated that many millions of years ago a space rock impacted the area, and elsewhere, puncturing the icy crust of Ceres to release briny fluid from below.

An image of the Occator crater, created using images captured by Dawn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
An image of the Occator crater, created using data from the Dawn mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The salty crust then froze over, sealing beneath it a chamber of meltwater and a cocktail of chemicals.

This later erupted – perhaps as recently as two million years ago – in the form of an icy volcano disgorging its frozen contents to splatter and dazzle the shadowy world.

Indeed, before Dawn, ESA’s Herschel Space Telescope had detected water vapour in this area.

Ceres could be composed of as much as 25% water – more than Earth. Who knows what exciting revelations future missions will reveal?

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This guide originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.