Facts about the Asteroid Belt
Ceres, the first asteriod discovered (in 1801 by the Italian astronomer Piazzi) is also the largest of the asteroids. It has a diameter of 594 miles and orbits the Sun every 4.6 years at a distance of 257 million miles. Pallas, the second largest asteriod has a diameter of 325 miles.
Diameters: Range from a few feet to 594 miles in diameter.
Distances from Sun: varies from 175 to 375 million miles
Moons: Some larger asteroids have small moons (other asteroids) orbiting them.
Observing with a small telescope: It is best to locate the position of the largest asteroids with a planetarium software program, then try to locate them with your telescope. They will appear star-like, just like the word “asteriod” implies.
Right. Vesta,the third largest asteroid with a length of 318 miles, as imaged by the spacecraft Dawn.
THE ASTEROID BELT
The asteroid belt lies between Mars and Jupiter. It is composed of about a billion chunks of rock that vary in size from a few feet to Ceres, the largest at 590 miles in diameter. The total mass of all the asteroid is about 4% the mass of our Moon but about half of this mass come from just 4 asteroids—Ceres, Pallas, Vesta and Hygiea. Distances from the Sun vary from around 175 to 375 million miles, so orbits range from 3.5 to 6.5 years.
None of the asteroids have atmospheres. Most have odd shapes and resemble potatoes (Ceres is the only one that is spherical in shape). They are pitted with craters, formed when the asteroids struck one another. Their colors range from reddish and light brown to dark gray. Asteroids vary in composition, from silicates, that is, sand, quartz and other rock-type materials, to metals such as nickel and iron. They represent remnants left over from the formation of the solar system and are not material from a planet that exploded.
Not every asteroid lies in the asteroid belt. Today, public interest in asteroids focuses on those that could possibly collide with Earth. There may be up to 700 “Apollo-Amor” asteroids that present collision hazards. This category has lengths of over 1/2 a mile and crosses the orbits of either Mars or Earth. Astronomers are working to find all of these. It is estimated that one large “Apollo-Amor” asteroid might strike the Earth every 250,000 years, but none are expected to do so in the foreseeable future. The orbits of these asteroids change because of the gravitational influence of Jupiter.
History of the Asteroid Belt
On January 1, 1801 the first asteroid, Ceres, was discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi. And, at the time of its discovery, it was called and considered a NEW planet! Yes, a planet like Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Then in 1802, a second asteroid (planet), Pallas was discovered. However, William Hershel, a famous astronomer of the time (he discovered Uranus) suggested that these objects should not be called planets, but should be considered a new class of objects, objects that he called Asteroids, meaning “star-like.” For 20 or so years after the discovery of Ceres, the asteroids were referred to as planets. Then between 1845 and 1850, numerous new asteroids were discovered. By the early 1850s, the asteroids were no longer considered planets but a special class of objects that were very small, numerous and had orbits confined between Mars and Jupiter. Does this not sound like the same thing that happened to Pluto!
Before the 1800s, many scientists believed that there had to be some mathematical or geometrical system that described the placement of the planets in the heavens (The heavens were considered a reflection of God’s work, and, as such, a perfect system.). Kepler (1571–1630) worked on finding such a geometry and came up with a set of nesting geometric solids (like cubes, pyramids, etc) that approximated the placements of the planets (see picture). There was also a simply numerical progression put forth by Bode in 1772 that seemed to accurately described the distances of the six known planets from the Sun (see the sidebar). But according to Bode’s Law, as it became to be known, there was no planet between Mars and Jupiter, as predicted by his law. So, in 1781, when William Herschel discovered Uranus, its distance from the Sun matched the distance as predicted by the “law.” Scientists then gave renewed credence to the law, with serious thought and effort put into finding the missing planet between Mars and Jupiter. Before a group of 24 astronomers could find an asteroid, the Italian astronomer, Giuseppe Piazzi, not part of the group, found the first asteroid, by chance. The idea, which unfortunately persist to this day, that the asteroid belt represents a planet that exploded, started after the second asteroid was discovered in 1802. Since the first two asteroids were very small and Bodes’s law seemed definitive about a “missing” planet, it was postulated that this “planet” may have blown up in the past. Of course, this is not the case!
Kepler’s geometric model of the solar system proved, in the end, to be wrong, but he hit it absolutely right about the orbital motions of the planets about the Sun.
What’s Out Tonight? is sponsored by Ken Press, publisher of astronomy books and charts.