Let’s Talk About The Asteroid Belt

Despite writing all about the amazing planets, the Sun, the dwarf planets, the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud, I completely skipped the awesome Asteroid Belt!

What is the Asteroid Belt?

Similar to the Kuiper Belt, the Asteroid Belt is a ring of rocky debris between Mars and Jupiter. Contrary to popular belief, the Asteroid Belt is really sparse. Almost half of the total mass within the belt comes from Ceres and the three largest asteroids in the belt, Vesta, Pallas, and Hygiea!

The_Four_Largest_Asteroids
Ceres and Vesta images: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA Pallas and images: ESO Images compiled by PlanetUser using Photoshop, and by kwamikagami using GIMP

In fact, the total mass of the Asteroid Belt may only be 0.04% of the Earth’s mass!

The types of asteroids.

About ¾ of the asteroids in the belt are carbonaceous (carbon-rich), and are called C-type asteroids. Pallas and Hygiea are but two examples of C-type asteroids.

PallasHST2007
UV image of Pallas. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope/STScI

Under 20% of the asteroids are composed mainly of silicate material, a bit like the terrestrial planets. These asteroids are named S-type. Eunomia is the largest of this type, and has been featured in multiple sci-fi novels, films, and video games.

M-type asteroids are far more metallic in composition, and show iron and nickel in their spectra. M-types make up only 10% of the asteroids. 216 Kleopatra is an M-type, and looks like a dog bone!

Kleopatra

V-type asteroids are the weirdest of them all, and are mostly composed of either basalt or Olivine. These asteroids have little information on them that I could find. Vesta is a V-type asteroid (hence the V in V-type.)

1024px-Vesta_in_natural_color_(cropped)
Vesta taken by Dawn. Credit: NASA / JPL / MPS / DLR / IDA / Björn Jónsson

Comets are also found in the asteroid belt, and have unusual orbits and it is speculated that these non-classical comets may have been a source of Earth’s water.

The Belt’s only dwarf planet, Ceres

kisspng-ceres-dwarf-planet-spacepedia-asteroid-belt-5afec43183add4.7285255815266458095394.png

Ceres lives in the asteroid belt unlike the other dwarf planets. It is a very small dwarf planet, being only 939 km wide.

Interestingly enough, you can observe Ceres with even just binoculars. I will admit, you’ll probably see just a teeny dot at most.

Observing Ceres is a difficult task, so a tiny dot is an amazing feat! If it makes you feel any better, even Hubble struggles to image Ceres. The image below is one of the clearest images of Ceres taken by Hubble.

Ceres_f
NASA, ESA, J. Parker (Southwest Research Institute)

Ceres’ structure seems to be most like a terrestrial planet: made of a non-dense core and mantle. This core is most likely solid, but the mantle is composed of layers of water ice and salts.

The surface of Ceres is fairly smooth, unlike its asteroid neighbours. It is believed that the salt in the ice below the surface may have smoothed out larger impacts, leaving only smaller craters.

 

800px-ceres_-_rc3_-_haulani_crater_22381131691.jpg
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA / Justin Cowart

The Belt has many families

The asteroids within the belt are not all evenly spaced out. Instead some are grouped together in families.

Those that are in a family share almost the same semi-major axis, orbit, and often a very similar composition. There are dozens of families, the main ones being the Flora family, Vesta family, Eos family, and the Themis family. Families are usually named after the largest asteroid in them.

The family with the biggest amount of members is the Nysa/Hertha family, which has over 19’000 members! This family makes up about 5% of the asteroid belt.

sortingss-asteroidbelt-nasa1200x900
Artist’s impression of Asteroid Belt. Credit: NASA

 

2 comments

  1. great post! I heard there are things called Trojans and Hildas that are sort of the asteroid belt, but not quite. Have you considered writing about them?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Loads of objects are gravitationally connected to the larger planets, like Neptune and especially Jupiter. I know about Trojans, but I hadn’t heard of Hildas until now, so keep an eye open for a post in the near future!

      Like

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