What is an asteroid belt?
The asteroids in the solar system are much talked about, and many of them are clustered between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter in a structure known as the asteroid belt, which travels around the Sun along with the other planets. But what exactly is an asteroid belt and what is in it?
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When astronomers observed Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, the known planets in the 18th century, they discovered an orbital pattern between them and arrived at the so-called Titius-Bode law. In short, he predicted the amount of space between planets in any system.
In the case of the solar system, the law indicated a space between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It was in 1801 that the Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi identified a small object, which followed an orbit radius exactly as prescribed by law. The object in question was Ceres, long referred to as an asteroid but now considered a dwarf planet.
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Later, other studies revealed more objects in the area. It wasn’t long before several rocky bodies were discovered there, making the name “asteroid” and “asteroid belt” come into common usage.
Understand what an asteroid belt is
We can say that an asteroid belt is a region of space with several scattered asteroids. In the case of the solar system’s asteroid belt, it’s like a “boundary” that separates the rocky inner planets and the gas giants. The asteroid belt is sometimes referred to as the “main belt” to avoid confusion with the Kuiper Belt, another asteroid belt in the solar system, located beyond the orbit of Neptune.
And the solar system isn’t the only one with an asteroid belt. A few years ago, a team of scientists discovered a cloud of dust around Zeta Lepois, a relatively young star, and they suspect the cloud to be a “baby” belt. Other stars appear to have their own asteroid belts, suggesting they are common across the universe.
Specifically, studies of white dwarf stars (those that look like the Sun but are nearing the end of their lives) show signs of rocky material falling onto their surfaces. In practice, this may indicate that belts may be common in systems with dying stars.
Where is the asteroid belt in the solar system located?
Also known as “minor planets”, asteroids are rocky celestial bodies that emerged from the formation of the solar system around 4.6 billion years ago. Most of them are in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, more than twice the distance between Earth and the Sun.
The belt was formed during the youth of our “space backyard”, when Jupiter’s strong gravity disrupted the process of formation of other solar system planets in the region. Thus, they ended up colliding with each other and fragmenting, forming the asteroids observed there.
The belt asteroids come in different sizes: some are less than 10m long, while others reach hundreds of kilometers and are considered dwarf planets – this is the case of Ceres, the largest object of the belt, with about 950 kilometers in diameter.
It is a dwarf planet too small to be “promoted” to planet status, and it alone holds about 30% of the Belt’s mass. Ceres and Vesta, the second most massive object in the belt, were visited by NASA’s Dawn mission in 2011. Thus, it became the first to orbit a dwarf planet, and also the first to orbit two celestial bodies in the belt. Asteroids.
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