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13.1: Asteroids

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Outline the story of the discovery of asteroids and describe their typical orbits
  • Describe the composition and classification of the various types of asteroids
  • Discuss what was learned from spacecraft missions to several asteroids

The asteroids are mostly found in the broad space between Mars and Jupiter, a region of the solar system called the asteroid belt. Asteroids are too small to be seen without a telescope; the first of them was not discovered until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Discovery and Orbits of the Asteroids

In the late 1700s, many astronomers were hunting for an additional planet they thought should exist in the gap between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. The Sicilian astronomer Giovanni Piazzi thought he had found this missing planet in 1801, when he discovered the first asteroid (or as it was later called, “minor planet”) orbiting at 2.8 AU from the Sun. His discovery, which he named Ceres, was quickly followed by the detection of three other little planets in similar orbits.

Clearly, there was not a single missing planet between Mars and Jupiter but rather a whole group of objects, each much smaller than our Moon. (An analogous discovery history has played out in slow motion in the outer solar system. Pluto was discovered beyond Neptune in 1930 and was initially called a planet, but early in the twenty-first century, several other similar objects were found. We now call all of them dwarf planets.)

By 1890, more than 300 of these minor planets or asteroids had been discovered by sharp-eyed observers. In that year, Max Wolfat Heidelberg introduced astronomical photography to the search for asteroids, greatly accelerating the discovery of these dim objects. In the twenty-first century, searchers use computer-driven electronic cameras, another leap in technology. More than half a million asteroids now have well-determined orbits.

Asteroids are given a number (corresponding to the order of discovery) and sometimes also a name. Originally, the names of asteroids were chosen from goddesses in Greek and Roman mythology. After exhausting these and other female names (including, later, those of spouses, friends, flowers, cities, and others), astronomers turned to the names of colleagues (and other people of distinction) whom they wished to honor. For example, asteroids 2410, 4859, and 68448 are named Morrison, Fraknoi, and Sidneywolff, for the three original authors of this textbook.

The largest asteroid is Ceres (numbered 1), with a diameter just less than 1000 kilometers. As we saw, Ceres was considered a planet when it was discovered but later was called an asteroid (the first of many.) Now, it has again been reclassified and is considered one of the dwarf planets, like Pluto (see the chapter on Moons, Rings and Pluto). We still find it convenient, however, to discuss Ceres as the largest of the asteroids. Two other asteroids, Pallas and Vesta, have diameters of about 500 kilometers, and about 15 more are larger than 250 kilometers (see Table). The number of asteroids increases rapidly with decreasing size; there are about 100 times more objects 10 kilometers across than there are 100 kilometers across. By 2016, nearly a million asteroids have been discovered by astronomers.

The Minor Planet Center is a worldwide repository of data on asteroids. Visit it online to find out about the latest discoveries related to the small bodies in our solar system. (Note that some of the material on this site is technical; it’s best to click on the menu tab for the “public” for information more at the level of this textbook.)

The Largest Asteroids
# Name Year of Discovery Orbit’s Semimajor Axis (AU) Diameter (km) Compositional Class
1 Ceres 1801 2.77 940 C (carbonaceous)
2 Pallas 1802 2.77 540 C (carbonaceous)
3 Juno 1804 2.67 265 S (stony)
4 Vesta 1807 2.36 510 basaltic
10 Hygiea 1849 3.14 410 C (carbonaceous)
16 Psyche 1852 2.92 265 M (metallic)
31 Euphrosyne 1854 3.15 250 C (carbonaceous)
52 Europa 1858 3.10 280 C (carbonaceous)
65 Cybele 1861 3.43 280 C (carbonaceous)
87 Sylvia 1866 3.48 275 C (carbonaceous)
451 Patientia 1899 3.06 260 C (carbonaceous)
511 Davida 1903 3.16 310 C (carbonaceous)
704 Interamnia 1910 3.06 310 C (carbonaceous)

The asteroids all revolve about the Sun in the same direction as the planets, and most of their orbits lie near the plane in which Earth and other planets circle. The majority of asteroids are in the asteroid belt, the region between Mars and Jupiter that contains all asteroids with orbital periods between 3.3 to 6 years (Figure). Although more than 75% of the known asteroids are in the belt, they are not closely spaced (as they are sometimes depicted in science fiction movies). The volume of the belt is actually very large, and the typical spacing between objects (down to 1 kilometer in size) is several million kilometers. (This was fortunate for spacecraft like Galileo, Cassini, Rosetta, and New Horizons, which needed to travel through the asteroid belt without a collision.)


Asteroids in the Solar System.

This computer-generated diagram shows the positions of the asteroids known in 2006. If the asteroid sizes were drawn to scale, none of the dots representing an asteroid would be visible. Here, the asteroid dots are too big and give a false impression of how crowded the asteroid belt would look if you were in it. Note that in addition to those in the asteroid belt, there are also asteroids in the inner solar system and some along Jupiter’s orbit (such as the Trojans and Greeks groups), controlled by the giant planet’s gravity.

Still, over the long history of our solar system, there have been a good number of collisions among the asteroids themselves. In 1918, the Japanese astronomer Kiyotsugu Hirayama found that some asteroids fall into families, groups with similar orbital characteristics. He hypothesized that each family may have resulted from the breakup of a larger body or, more likely, from the collision of two asteroids. Slight differences in the speeds with which the various fragments left the collision scene account for the small spread in orbits now observed for the different asteroids in a given family. Several dozen such families exist, and observations have shown that individual members of most families have similar compositions, as we would expect if they were fragments of a common parent.

You can see a dramatic animated video showing the orbits of 100,000 asteroids found by one sky survey. As the 3-minute video goes on, you get to see the orbits of the planets and how the asteroids are distributed in the solar system. But note that all such videos are misleading in one sense. The asteroids themselves are really small compared to the distances covered, so they have to be depicted as larger points to be visible. If you were in the asteroid belt, there would be far more empty space than asteroids.

Composition and Classification

Asteroids are as different as black and white. The majority are very dark, with reflectivity of only 3 to 4%, like a lump of coal. However, another large group has a typical reflectivity of 15%. To understand more about these differences and how they are related to chemical composition, astronomers study the spectrum of the light reflected from asteroids for clues about their composition.

The dark asteroids are revealed from spectral studies to be primitive bodies (those that have changed little chemically since the beginning of the solar system) composed of silicates mixed with dark, organic carbon compounds. These are known as C-type asteroids (“C” for carbonaceous). Two of the largest asteroids, Ceres and Pallas, are primitive, as are almost all of the asteroids in the outer part of the belt.

The second most populous group is the S-type asteroids, where “S” stands for a stony or silicate composition. Here, the dark carbon compounds are missing, resulting in higher reflectivity and clearer spectral signatures of silicate minerals. The S-type asteroids are also chemically primitive, but their different composition indicates that they were probably formed in a different location in the solar system from the C-type asteroids.

Asteroids of a third class, much less numerous than those of the first two, are composed primarily of metal and are called M-type asteroids (“M” for metallic). Spectroscopically, the identification of metal is difficult, but for at least the largest M-type asteroid, Psyche, this identification has been confirmed by radar. Since a metal asteroid, like an airplane or ship, is a much better reflector of radar than is a stony object, Psyche appears bright when we aim a radar beam at it.

How did such metal asteroids come to be? We suspect that each came from a parent body large enough for its molten interior to settle out or differentiate, and the heavier metals sank to the center. When this parent body shattered in a later collision, the fragments from the core were rich in metals. There is enough metal in even a 1-kilometer M-type asteroid to supply the world with iron and many other industrial metals for the foreseeable future, if we could bring one safely to Earth.

In addition to the M-type asteroids, a few other asteroids show signs of early heating and differentiation. These have basaltic surfaces like the volcanic plains of the Moon and Mars; the large asteroid Vesta (discussed in a moment) is in this last category.

The different classes of asteroids are found at different distances from the Sun (Figure). By tracing how asteroid compositions vary with distance from the Sun, we can reconstruct some of the properties of the solar nebula from which they originally formed.

Where Different Types of Asteroids Are Found.

Asteroids of different composition are distributed at different distances from the Sun. The S-type and C-type are both primitive; the M-type consists of cores of differentiated parent bodies.

Vesta: A Differentiated Asteroid

Vesta is one of the most interesting of the asteroids. It orbits the Sun with a semi-major axis of 2.4 AU in the inner part of the asteroid belt. Its relatively high reflectivity of almost 30% makes it the brightest asteroid, so bright that it is actually visible to the unaided eye if you know just where to look. But its real claim to fame is that its surface is covered with basalt, indicating that Vesta is a differentiated object that must once have been volcanically active, in spite of its small size (about 500 kilometers in diameter).

Meteorites from Vesta’s surface (Figure), identified by comparing their spectra with that of Vesta itself, have landed on Earth and are available for direct study in the laboratory. We thus know a great deal about this asteroid. The age of the lava flows from which these meteorites derived has been measured at 4.4 to 4.5 billion years, very soon after the formation of the solar system. This age is consistent with what we might expect for volcanoes on Vesta; whatever process heated such a small object was probably intense and short-lived. In 2016, a meteorite fell in Turkey that could be identified with a particular lava flow as revealed by the orbiting Dawn spacecraft.


Piece of Vesta.

This meteorite (rock that fell from space) has been identified as a volcanic fragment from the crust of asteroid Vesta.

Asteroids Up Close

On the way to its 1995 encounter with Jupiter, the Galileo spacecraft was targeted to fly close to two main-belt S-type asteroids called Gaspra and Ida. The Galileo camera revealed both as long and highly irregular (resembling a battered potato), as befits fragments from a catastrophic collision (Figure).


Mathilde, Gaspra, and Ida.

The first three asteroids photographed from spacecraft flybys, printed to the same scale. Gaspra and Ida are S-type and were investigated by the Galileo spacecraft; Mathilde is C-type and was a flyby target for the NEAR-Shoemaker spacecraft.

The detailed images allowed us to count the craters on Gaspra and Ida, and to estimate the length of time their surfaces have been exposed to collisions. The Galileo scientists concluded that these asteroids are only about 200 million years old (that is, the collisions that formed them took place about 200 million years ago). Calculations suggest that an asteroid the size of Gaspra or Ida can expect another catastrophic collision sometime in the next billion years, at which time it will be disrupted to form another generation of still-smaller fragments.

The greatest surprise of the Galileo flyby of Ida was the discovery of a moon (which was then named Dactyl), in orbit about the asteroid (Figure). Although only 1.5 kilometers in diameter, smaller than many college campuses, Dactyl provides scientists with something otherwise beyond their reach—a measurement of the mass and density of Ida using Kepler’s laws. The moon’s distance of about 100 kilometers and its orbital period of about 24 hours indicate that Ida has a density of approximately 2.5 g/cm3, which matches the density of primitive rocks. Subsequently, both large visible-light telescopes and high-powered planetary radar have discovered many other asteroid moons, so that we are now able to accumulate valuable data on asteroid masses and densities.


Ida and Dactyl.

The asteroid Ida and its tiny moon Dactyl (the small body off to its right), were photographed by the Galileo spacecraft in 1993. Irregularly shaped Ida is 56 kilometers in its longest dimension, while Dactyl is about 1.5 kilometers across. The colors have been intensified in this image; to the eye, all asteroids look basically gray.

By the way, Phobos and Deimos, the two small moons of Mars, are probably captured asteroids (Figure). They were first studied at close range by the Viking orbiters in 1977 and later by Mars Global Surveyor. Both are irregular, somewhat elongated, and heavily created, resembling other smaller asteroids. Their largest dimensions are about 26 kilometers and 16 kilometers, respectively. The small outer moons of Jupiter and Saturn were probably also captured from passing asteroids, perhaps early in the history of the solar system.


Moons of Mars.

The two small moons of Mars, (a) Phobos and (b) Deimos, were discovered in 1877 by American astronomer Asaph Hall. Their surface materials are similar to many of the asteroids in the outer asteroid belt, leading astronomers to believe that the two moons may be captured asteroids.

Beginning in the 1990s, spacecraft have provided close looks at several more asteroids. The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft went into orbit around the S-type asteroid Eros, becoming a temporary moon of this asteroid. On its way to Eros, the NEAR spacecraft was renamed after planetary geologist Eugene Shoemaker, a pioneer in our understanding of craters and impacts.

For a year, the NEAR-Shoemaker spacecraft orbited the little asteroid at various altitudes, measuring its surface and interior composition as well as mapping Eros from all sides (Figure). The data showed that Eros is made of some of the most chemically primitive materials in the solar system. Several other asteroids have been revealed as made of loosely bound rubble throughout, but not Eros. Its uniform density (about the same as that of Earth’s crust) and extensive global-scale grooves and ridges show that it is a cracked but solid rock.


Looking Down on the North Pole of Eros.

This view was constructed from six images of the asteroid taken from an altitude of 200 kilometers. The large crater at the top has been named Psyche (after the maiden who was Eros’ lover in classical mythology) and is about 5.3 kilometers wide. A saddle-shaped region can be seen directly below it. Craters of many different sizes are visible.

Eros has a good deal of loose surface material that appears to have slid down toward lower elevations. In some places, the surface rubble layer is 100 meters deep. The top of loose soil is dotted with scattered, half-buried boulders. There are so many of these boulders that they are more numerous than the craters. Of course, with the gravity so low on this small world, a visiting astronaut would find loose boulders rolling toward her pretty slowly and could easily leap high enough to avoid being hit by one. Although the NEAR-Shoemaker spacecraft was not constructed as a lander, at the end of its orbital mission in 2000, it was allowed to fall gently to the surface, where it continued its chemical analysis for another week.

In 2003, Japan’s Hayabusa 1 mission not only visited a small asteroid but also brought back samples to study in laboratories on Earth. The target S-type asteroid, Itokawa (shown in Figure), is much smaller than Eros, only about 500 meters long. This asteroid is elongated and appears to be the result of the collision of two separate asteroids long ago. There are almost no impact craters, but an abundance of boulders (like a pile of rubble) on the surface.


Asteroid Itokawa.

The surface of asteroid Itokawa appears to have no craters. Astronomers have hypothesized that its surface consists of rocks and ice chunks held together by a small amount of gravity, and its interior is probably also a similar rubble pile.

The Hayabusa spacecraft was designed not to land, but to touch the surface just long enough to collect a small sample. This tricky maneuver failed on its first try, with the spacecraft briefly toppling over on its side. Eventually, the controllers were successful in picking up a few grains of surface material and transferring them into the return capsule. The 2010 reentry into Earth’s atmosphere over Australia was spectacular (Figure), with a fiery breakup of the spacecraft, while a small return capsule successfully parachuted to the surface. Months of careful extraction and study of more than a thousand tiny dust particles confirmed that the surface of Itokawa had a composition similar to a well-known class of primitive meteorites. We estimate that the dust grains Hayabusa picked up had been exposed on the surface of the asteroid for about 8 million years.


Hayabusa Return.

This dramatic image shows the Hayabusa probe breaking up upon reentry. The return capsule, which separated from the main spacecraft and parachuted to the surface, glows at the bottom right.

The most ambitious asteroid space mission (called Dawn) has visited the two largest main belt asteroids, Ceres and Vesta, orbiting each for about a year (Figure). Their large sizes (diameters of about 1000 and 500 kilometers, respectively) make them appropriate for comparison with the planets and large moons. Both turned out to be heavily cratered, implying their surfaces are old. On Vesta, we have now actually located the large impact craters that ejected the basaltic meteorites previously identified as coming from this asteroid. These craters are so large that they sample several layers of Vesta’s crustal material.


Vesta and Ceres.

The NASA Dawn spacecraft took these images of the large asteroids (a) Vesta and (b) Ceres. (a) Note that Vesta is not round, as Ceres (which is considered a dwarf planet) is. A mountain twice the height of Mt. Everest on Earth is visible at the very bottom of the Vesta image. (b) The image of Ceres has its colors exaggerated to bring out differences in composition. You can see a white feature in Occator crater near the center of the image.

Ceres has not had a comparable history of giant impacts, so its surface is covered with craters that look more like those from the lunar highlands. The big surprise at Ceres is the presence of very bright white spots, associated primarily with the central peaks of large craters (Figure). The light-colored mineral is some kind of salt, either produced when these craters were formed or subsequently released from the interior.


White Spots in a Larger Crater on Ceres.

These bright features appear to be salt deposits in a Ceres crater called Occator, which is 92 kilometers across.

The space agencies involved with the Dawn mission have produced nice animated “flyover” videos of Vesta and Ceres available online.

Key Concepts and Summary

The solar system includes many objects that are much smaller than the planets and their larger moons. The rocky ones are generally called asteroids. Ceres is the largest asteroid; about 15 are larger than 250 kilometers and about 100,000 are larger than 1 kilometer. Most are in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The presence of asteroid families in the belt indicates that many asteroids are the remnants of ancient collisions and fragmentation. The asteroids include both primitive and differentiated objects. Most asteroids are classed as C-type, meaning they are composed of carbonaceous materials. Dominating the inner belt are S-type (stony) asteroids, with a few M-type (metallic) ones. We have spacecraft images of several asteroids and returned samples from asteroid Itokawa. Recent observations have detected a number of asteroid moons, making it possible to measure the masses and densities of the asteroids they orbit. The two largest asteroids, Ceres and Vesta, have been extensively studied from orbit by the Dawn spacecraft.


a stony or metallic object orbiting the Sun that is smaller than a major planet but that shows no evidence of an atmosphere or of other types of activity associated with comets
asteroid belt
the region of the solar system between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter in which most asteroids are located; the main belt, where the orbits are generally the most stable, extends from 2.2 to 3.3 AU from the Sun


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