Asteroids, sometimes called minor planets or planetoids, are bodies—primarily of the inner Solar System—that are smaller than planets but larger than meteoroids (commonly defined as being 10 meters across or less), with the exception of comets. The distinction between asteroids and comets is made on visual appearance when discovered: Comets show a perceptible coma (a fuzzy "atmosphere"), while asteroids do not.
Traditionally, small bodies orbiting the Sun were classified as asteroids, comets or meteoroids, with anything smaller than, say, ten metres across being called a meteoroid. The term "asteroid" is somewhat ill-defined. It has never had a formal definition, with the broader term minor planet being preferred by the International Astronomical Union until 2006, when the term "small Solar System body" was introduced. Other languages prefer "planetoid" (Greek for "planet-like"). The word "planetesimal" has a similar meaning, but often refers specifically to small bodies that existed at the time the Solar System was forming. The term "planetule" was coined by the geologist Conybeare to describe minor planets, but is not in common use.
When discovered, asteroids were seen as a class of objects distinct from comets, and there was no unified term for the two until "small Solar System body" was coined in 2006. The main difference between an asteroid and a comet is that a comet shows a coma due to sublimation of near surface ices by solar radiation. A few objects have ended up being dual-listed because they were first classified as minor planets but later showed evidence of cometary activity. Conversely, some (perhaps all) comets eventually are depleted of their volatile ices and then appear as point-like objects, i.e. asteroids. A further distinction is that comets typically have more eccentric orbits than asteroids (though some objects classified as asteroids also have notably eccentric orbits).
For almost two centuries, from the discovery of the first asteroid, 1 Ceres, in 1801 until the discovery of the first centaur, 2060 Chiron, in 1977, all known asteroids spent most of their time at or within the orbit of Jupiter, though a few such as 944 Hidalgo ventured far beyond Jupiter for part of their orbit.
When astronomers started finding small bodies that permanently resided further out than Jupiter, now called centaurs, they were counted alongside the asteroids, though there was debate over whether they should be classified as asteroids or as a new type of object. Then, when the first trans-Neptunian object, 1992 QB1, was discovered in 1992, and especially when large numbers of similar objects started turning up, new terms were invented to sidestep the issue: Kuiper Belt object (KBO), trans-Neptunian object (TNO), scattered-disc object (SDO), and so on. These inhabit the cold outer reaches of the Solar System where ices remain solid and comet-like bodies are not expected to exhibit much cometary activity.
The innermost of these are the Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), called "objects" partly to avoid the need to classify them as asteroids or comets. KBOs are believed to be predominantly comet-like in composition, though some may be more akin to asteroids. Furthermore, they do not necessarily have the highly eccentric orbits usually associated with comets, and there are significant numbers very much larger than traditional comet nuclei. The much more distant Oort cloud is also hypothesized to be a reservoir of dormant comets. Other recent observations, such as the analysis of the cometary dust collected by the Stardust probe, are increasingly blurring the distinction between comets and asteroids, suggesting "a continuum between asteroids and comets" rather than a sharp dividing line.
The minor planets beyond Jupiter's orbit are rarely directly referred to as "asteroids", but all are commonly lumped together under the term "asteroid" in popular presentations. For instance, a joint NASA-JPL public-outreach website states,
It is, however, becoming increasingly common for the term "asteroid" to be restricted to minor planets of the inner Solar System, and therefore this article will restrict itself for the most part to the classical asteroids: objects of the main asteroid belt, Jupiter trojans, and near-Earth objects.
In late August 2006, the IAU introduced the class small solar system bodies (SSSB) to include most objects previously classified as minor planets and comets. At the same time, the class dwarf planets was created for the largest minor planets—those which have sufficient mass to have become more-or-less spherical under their own gravity. According to the IAU, "the term 'minor planet' may still be used, but generally the term 'small solar system body' will be preferred. Currently only the largest object in the asteroid belt, Ceres, at about 950 km across, is in the dwarf planet category, although there are several relatively large near-spherical asteroids (Vesta, Pallas and Hygiea) that may be reclassified as dwarf planets in future.
The physical composition of asteroids is varied and in most cases poorly understood. Ceres appears to be composed of a rocky core covered by an icy mantle, whereas Vesta is thought to have a nickle-iron core, olivine mantle, and basaltic crust, and 10 Hygiea appears to have a primitive composition of undifferentiated carbonaceous chondrite. Many, perhaps most, of smaller asteroids are piles of rubble held together loosely by gravity. Some have moons or are co-orbiting pairs of binary asteroids. All three conditions, as well as scattered asteroid families, may be the result of collisions which disrupted a parent asteroid.
Only one asteroid, 4 Vesta, is normally visible to the naked eye, and this only in very dark skies when it is favorably positioned.
The vast majority of known asteroids orbit within the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, generally in relatively low-eccentricity (i.e., not very elongated) orbits. This belt is currently estimated to contain between 1.1 and 1.9 million asteroids larger than 1 km in diameter, and millions of smaller ones. It is thought that these asteroids are remnants of the protoplanetary disk, and in this region the accretion of planetesimals into planets during the formative period of the solar system was prevented by large gravitational perturbations by Jupiter. Although fewer Trojan asteroids sharing Jupiter's orbit are currently known, it is thought that there are as many as there are asteroids in the main belt.
The dwarf planet Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt, with a diameter of over 900 km. The next largest are the asteroids 2 Pallas and 4 Vesta, both with diameters of over 500 km. Normally Vesta is the only main belt asteroid that can, on occasion, become visible to the naked eye. However, on some very rare occasions, a near-Earth asteroid may briefly become visible without technical aid; see 99942 Apophis.
The mass of all the objects of the Main asteroid belt, lying between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, is estimated to be about 3.0-3.6 kg, or about 4 percent of the mass of the Moon. Of this, Ceres comprises 0.95 kg, some 32 percent of the total. Adding in the next three most massive asteroids, 4 Vesta (9%), 2 Pallas (7%), and 10 Hygiea (3%), brings this figure up to 51%; while the three after that, 511 Davida (1.2%), 704 Interamnia (1.0%), and 52 Europa (0.9%), only add another 3% to the total mass. The number of asteroids then increases rapidly as their individual masses decrease.
Various classes of asteroid have been discovered outside the main asteroid belt. Near-Earth asteroids have orbits in the vicinity of Earth's orbit. Trojan asteroids are gravitationally locked into synchronisation with a Jupiter, either leading or trailing the planet in its orbit. A couple trojans have been found orbiting with Mars. A group of asteroids called Vulcanoids are hypothesised by some to lie very close to the Sun, within the orbit of Mercury, but none has so far been found.
Many asteroids have been placed in groups and families based on their orbital characteristics. Apart from the broadest divisions, it is customary to name a group of asteroids after the first member of that group to be discovered. Groups are relatively loose dynamical associations, whereas families are much tighter and result from the catastrophic break-up of a large parent asteroid sometime in the past. Families have only been recognized within the main asteroid belt. They were first recognised by Kiyotsugu Hirayama in 1918 and are often called Hirayama families in his honor.
About 30% to 35% of the bodies in the main belt belong to dynamical families each thought to have a common origin in a past collision between asteroids. A family has also been associated with the plutoid dwarf planet .
Sometimes these horseshoe objects temporarily become quasi-satellites for a few decades or a few hundred years, before returning to their prior status. Both Earth and Venus are known to have quasi-satellites.
In 1975, an asteroid taxonomic system based on colour, albedo, and spectral shape was developed by Clark R. Chapman, David Morrison, and Ben Zellner. These properties are thought to correspond to the composition of the asteroid's surface material. The original classification system had three categories: C-types for dark carbonaceous objects (75% of known asteroids), S-types for stony (silicaceous) objects (17% of known asteroids) and U for those that did not fit into either C or S. This classification has since been expanded to include a number of other asteroid types. The number of types continues to grow as more asteroids are studied.
The two most widely used taxonomies currently used are the Tholen classification and SMASS classification. The former was proposed in 1984 by David J. Tholen, and was based on data collected from an eight-color asteroid survey performed in the 1980s. This resulted in 14 asteroid categories. In 2002, the Small Main-Belt Asteroid Spectroscopic Survey resulted in a modified version of the Tholen taxonomy with 24 different types. Both systems have three broad categories of C, S, and X asteroids, where X consists of mostly metallic asteroids, such as the M-type. There are also a number of smaller classes.
Note that the proportion of known asteroids falling into the various spectral types does not necessarily reflect the proportion of all asteroids that are of that type; some types are easier to detect than others, biasing the totals.
At present, the spectral classification based on several coarse resolution spectroscopic surveys in the 1990s is still the standard. Scientists have been unable to agree on a better taxonomic system, largely due to the difficulty of obtaining detailed measurements consistently for a large sample of asteroids (e.g. finer resolution spectra, or non-spectral data such as densities would be very useful).
The first named minor planet, 1 Ceres, was discovered in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi, and was originally considered a new planet. This was followed by the discovery of other similar bodies, which with the equipment of the time appeared to be points of light, like stars, showing little or no planetary disc (though readily distinguishable from stars due to their apparent motions). This prompted the astronomer Sir William Herschel to propose the term "asteroid", from Greek αστεροειδής, asteroeidēs = star-like, star-shaped, from ancient Greek Aστήρ, astēr = star.
In the last years of the 18th century, Baron Franz Xaver von Zach organized a group of 24 astronomers to search the sky for the missing planet predicted at about 2.8 AU from the Sun by the Titius-Bode law, partly as a consequence of the discovery, by Sir William Herschel in 1781, of the planet Uranus at the distance predicted by the law. This task required that hand-drawn sky charts be prepared for all stars in the zodiacal band down to an agreed-upon limit of faintness. On subsequent nights, the sky would be charted again and any moving object would, hopefully, be spotted. The expected motion of the missing planet was about 30 seconds of arc per hour, readily discernible by observers.
Ironically, the first asteroid, 1 Ceres, was not discovered by a member of the group, but rather by accident in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi, director of the observatory of Palermo in Sicily. He discovered a new star-like object in Taurus and followed the displacement of this object during several nights. His colleague, Carl Friedrich Gauss, used these observations to determine the exact distance from this unknown object to the Earth. Gauss' calculations placed the object between the planets Mars and Jupiter. Piazzi named it after Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture.
Three other asteroids (2 Pallas, 3 Juno, and 4 Vesta) were discovered over the next few years, with Vesta found in 1807. After eight more years of fruitless searches, most astronomers assumed that there were no more and abandoned any further searches.
However, Karl Ludwig Hencke persisted, and began searching for more asteroids in 1830. Fifteen years later, he found 5 Astraea, the first new asteroid in 38 years. He also found 6 Hebe less than two years later. After this, other astronomers joined in the search and at least one new asteroid was discovered every year after that (except the wartime year 1945). Notable asteroid hunters of this early era were J. R. Hind, Annibale de Gasparis, Robert Luther, H. M. S. Goldschmidt, Jean Chacornac, James Ferguson, Norman Robert Pogson, E. W. Tempel, J. C. Watson, C. H. F. Peters, A. Borrelly, J. Palisa, the Henry brothers and Auguste Charlois.
In 1891, however, Max Wolf pioneered the use of astrophotography to detect asteroids, which appeared as short streaks on long-exposure photographic plates. This dramatically increased the rate of detection compared with previous visual methods: Wolf alone discovered 248 asteroids, beginning with 323 Brucia, whereas only slightly more than 300 had been discovered up to that point. Still, a century later, only a few thousand asteroids were identified, numbered and named. It was known that there were many more, but most astronomers did not bother with them, calling them "vermin of the skies".
These first three steps do not constitute asteroid discovery: the observer has only found an apparition, which gets a provisional designation, made up of the year of discovery, a letter representing the week of discovery, and finally a letter and a number indicating the discovery's sequential number (example: ).
The final step of discovery is to send the locations and time of observations to the Minor Planet Center, where computer programs determine whether an apparition ties together previous apparitions into a single orbit. If so, the object receives a catalogue number and the observer of the first apparition with a calculated orbit is declared the discoverer, and granted the honor of naming the object subject to the approval of the International Astronomical Union.
There is increasing interest in identifying asteroids whose orbits cross Earth's, and that could, given enough time, collide with Earth (see Earth-crosser asteroids). The three most important groups of near-Earth asteroids are the Apollos, Amors, and Atens. Various asteroid deflection strategies have been proposed, as early as the 1960s.
The near-Earth asteroid 433 Eros had been discovered as long ago as 1898, and the 1930s brought a flurry of similar objects. In order of discovery, these were: 1221 Amor, 1862 Apollo, 2101 Adonis, and finally 69230 Hermes, which approached within 0.005 AU of the Earth in 1937. Astronomers began to realize the possibilities of Earth impact.
Two events in later decades increased the level of alarm: the increasing acceptance of Walter Alvarez' hypothesis that an impact event resulted in the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction, and the 1994 observation of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashing into Jupiter. The U.S. military also declassified the information that its military satellites, built to detect nuclear explosions, had detected hundreds of upper-atmosphere impacts by objects ranging from one to 10 metres across.
All of these considerations helped spur the launch of highly efficient automated systems that consist of Charge-Coupled Device (CCD) cameras and computers directly connected to telescopes. Since 1998, a large majority of the asteroids have been discovered by such automated systems. A list of teams using such automated systems includes:
The LINEAR system alone has discovered 84,764 asteroids, as of August 28, 2007. Between all of the automated systems, 4711 near-Earth asteroids have been discovered including over 600 more than 1 km in diameter.
|13 Egeria||Never assigned.|
|14 Irene||"A dove carrying an olive-branch, with a star on its head," never drawn.|
The first close-up photographs of asteroid-like objects were taken in 1971 when the Mariner 9 probe imaged Phobos and Deimos, the two small moons of Mars, which are probably captured asteroids. These images revealed the irregular, potato-like shapes of most asteroids, as did subsequent images from the Voyager probes of the small moons of the gas giants.
In September 2005, the Japanese Hayabusa probe started studying 25143 Itokawa in detail and may return samples of its surface to earth. The Hayabusa mission has been plagued with difficulties, including the failure of two of its three control wheels, rendering it difficult to maintain its orientation to the sun to collect solar energy. Following that, the next asteroid encounters will involve the European Rosetta probe (launched in 2004), which flew by 2867 Šteins in 2008 and will buzz 21 Lutetia in 2010.
It has been suggested that asteroids might be used in the future as a source of materials which may be rare or exhausted on earth (asteroid mining), or materials for constructing space habitats (see Colonization of the asteroids). Materials that are heavy and expensive to launch from earth may someday be mined from asteroids and used for space manufacturing and construction.
Asteroids and asteroid belts are a staple of science fiction stories. Asteroids play several potential roles in science fiction: as places which human beings might colonize; as resources for extracting minerals; as a hazard encountered by spaceships travelling between two other points; and as a threat to life on Earth due to potential impacts.
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