8 amazing facts about the asteroid belt

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The asteroid belt tells the story of the creation of the solar system. When it formed, not all of it merged into one planet. Like LEGO bricks that never came out of the bucket, these objects have been organized by physics into a ring located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It is the asteroid belt. Here are some things you might not know about it.

1. THERE ARE MORE THAN HALF A MILLION ATERODES.

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More than half a million asteroids have been discovered by scientists, and hundreds of thousands have yet to be found. They are generally divided into three classes: type S (for stony); type C (chondrites, largely composed of carbon, the most common and perhaps the oldest in the cluster); and type M (metallic). Asteroids measure from 30 feet to 330 miles. For the most part, they are oddly shaped and, like planets, rotate (though not always so eloquently). Some asteroids have moons; some have two. Not all asteroids are located in the asteroid belt. Some, called Trojans, share Jupiter’s orbit. Some are hiding dangerously close to Earth. They are called near-Earth asteroids.

2. ASTEROID MEANS “LIKE A STAR.”

A night sky with a shooting star.

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The first asteroid was discovered in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi, although he did not know it at the time. He thought he had discovered the much sought-after planet between Mars and Jupiter. He named his discovery Ceres, after the Roman goddess of the harvest (and namesake of the word cereal, although this word was not invented until 1818).

A little over a year later, another “planet” was discovered. And another. And another. Eventually there were so many planets that the astronomers raised their hands and gave the whole group a new classification: asteroid, or “like a star” in Greek. The name was chosen because they appeared, well, like stars in telescopes; they wouldn’t resolve into disks like the planets do. Ceres’ race as a planet lasted about 60 years before it was demoted to an asteroid. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union reclassified it again, this time as a dwarf planet. This is the same decision that designated Pluto as a dwarf planet, although there is some debate on this point.

3. NOT ALL OF THE ASTERODES IT CONTAINS MATTER A LOT.

An artistic representation of the asteroid belt.

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It is likely that the illustrations you have seen of the asteroid belt are not drawn to scale. If all the objects in the asteroid belt were brought together and transformed into a single ball, its combined mass would be only 4% of the size of the Moon. In fact, Ceres alone makes up a third of the total mass of the asteroid belt.

4. STRIKE YOUR SPACE VESSEL IN IT. YOU WILL NOT STOP ANYTHING.

A little girl plays with a toy rocket in a space system.

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What’s the biggest misconception people have about the asteroid belt? Mental Floss asked Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu (which once lived in the main asteroid belt before being rocked by Saturn and sent on its way to the inner solar system. ). His answer : The Empire Strikes Back. People imagine “this is this very energetic boulder field with constantly crashing objects, and Han Solo has to dodge and weave to avoid collisions,” says Lauretta.

But the asteroid belt is downright spacious. If the arcade game Asteroids were real, it would pretty much consist of a ship and a black screen and… nothing to film. “When you fly a spaceship through the asteroid belt, it’s a real challenge to get close enough to an asteroid to see it,” says Lauretta. “You have to target him specifically.” There are, on average, 620,000 to 1.8 million miles between asteroids.

5. THE HISTORY OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM IS HIDDEN INSIDE.

The concept of a solar system artist.

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In the 1980s, scientists really set out to spectrally classify every object in the asteroid belt, and they discovered a composition gradient. There were many dark, carbonaceous objects in the outer asteroid belt, and brighter, “ordinary chondritic” S-type materials in the inner asteroid belt. Spectral readings are now starting to get very detailed, and scientists get a good glimpse of objects as small as 6 miles in diameter. As they enter the asteroid compositions, they discover a fine structure in the composition model and place it in the context of the dynamic state of the early solar system.

“Organic matter and ice will be stable further [in the belt], and metals and rocks will be stable further. You expect to see this, ”Lauretta says. “But now you are starting to see that there really is some organic rich and water rich material in the main belt. It’s a small fraction of it, but it’s a large fraction. And there are rocky, shiny materials in the outer belt. This distribution of materials is a record of the migration of giant planets and the dynamic evolution of the solar system.

“I think we’re going to be able to piece together a much more complex chemically-dynamic coupled model of solar system evolution, and see it almost like the stratigraphic layers of the geological record. That will tell us the story of the evolution of the solar system. belt – not just the original protoplanetary disk that established this chemistry, but how major evolutionary events in our solar system altered this distribution. “

6. SCIENTISTS ARE LOOKING FOR ITS OLDEST OBJECTS.

An asteroid in space.

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Today, planetologists are trying to identify and understand the primordial structures of the asteroid belt in the same way that paleontologists or geologists look for the first signs of the origin of life in geological records. “This is where the biggest challenge lies,” says Lauretta. “There is, in the older examples, a discrete signal that you must remove. It is going to be very small.”

Scientists strive to understand what has been preserved since the dawn of the solar system – which they can trust as a true overarching signature in the formation of our planetary system – versus what has been eroded, altered, or changed over 4.5 billion years of evolution. “Trying to determine this starting condition and targeting our scientific research in these areas is the biggest challenge. “

NASA’s recently announced Lucy mission to multiple asteroids will help do that. “Everyone thinks these Trojans are the ones who hold the key to the oldest and most primitive material in the solar system,” Lauretta explains. “Lucy’s team can go out and do some cool science.”

7. ASTERODES ARE LIKE SNOWFLAKES.

A snowflake in the snow on a dark background.

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No two are exactly the same and each has its own story to tell. “Each asteroid is a unique world to explore, and that’s awesome,” Lauretta says. “There is so much diversity and so many challenges out there. When we really get there and start digging, we’re going to see things happen that we never even dreamed of.”

8. NASA WILL GROW ON ASTERDAS.

An artist's drawing of Dawn pulling her engines over Ceres.

NASA / JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is currently in orbit around Ceres, where it continues to characterize this object and how it changes as it revolves around the Sun. (It has already orbited Vesta, making it the only spacecraft to orbit two alien bodies.) NASA’s OSIRIS-REx will arrive on Asteroid Bennu in August 2018. Earlier this year, the agency approved two missions to small bodies: the Psyche spaceship will travel to asteroid 16 Psyche, a mysterious all-metal world. (It could have once been the nucleus of a protoplanet.) The Lucy mission will travel to five Trojan asteroids that share Jupiter’s orbit. The Japanese Space Agency’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft will arrive next year at Ryugu (aka 1999 JU3), a near-Earth asteroid. Like OSIRIS-REx, it will take a sample and send it back to Earth for analysis.

And this analysis is serious business. In the case of samples and meteorites, says Lauretta, “most people don’t realize that we sort these things grain by grain, atom by atom, isotope to isotopic ratio, and put together detailed stories about what goes on. ‘passed billions of years ago. in our solar system. “


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