Asteroids are small, airless rocky worlds revolving around the sun that are too small to be called planets. They are also known as planetoids or minor planets. In total, the mass of all the asteroids is less than that of Earth's moon. But despite their size, asteroids can be dangerous. Many have hit Earth in the past, and more will crash into our planet in the future. That's one reason scientists study asteroids and are eager to learn more about their numbers, orbits and physical characteristics. If an asteroid is headed our way, we want to know that.
Most asteroids lie in a vast ring between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. This main asteroid belt holds more than 200 asteroids larger than 60 miles (100 kilometers) in diameter. Scientists estimate the asteroid belt also contains more than 750,000 asteroids larger than three-fifths of a mile (1 km) in diameter and millions of smaller ones. Not everything in the main belt is an asteroid — for instance, comets have recently been discovered there, and Ceres, once thought of only as an asteroid, is now also considered a dwarf planet.
Many asteroids lie outside the main belt. For instance, a number of asteroids called Trojans lie along Jupiter's orbital path. Three groups — Atens, Amors, and Apollos — known as near-Earth asteroids orbit in the inner solar system and sometimes cross the path of Mars and Earth.
Asteroids are leftovers from the formation of our solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. Early on, the birth of Jupiter prevented any planetary bodies from forming in the gap between Mars and Jupiter, causing the small objects that were there to collide with each other and fragment into the asteroids seen today.
Asteroids can reach as large as Ceres, which is 940 km (about 583 miles) across. On the other hand, one of the smallest, discovered in 1991 and named 1991 BA, is only about 20 feet (6 meters) across.
Nearly all asteroids are irregularly shaped, although a few are nearly spherical, such as Ceres. They are often pitted or cratered — for instance, Vesta has a giant crater some 285 miles (460 km) in diameter. The surfaces of most asteroids are thought to be covered in dust.
As asteroids revolve around the sun in elliptical orbits, they rotate, sometimes tumbling quite erratically. More than 150 asteroids are also known to have a small companion moon, with some having two moons. Binary or double asteroids also exist, in which two asteroids of roughly equal size orbit each other, and triple asteroid systems are known as well. Many asteroids seemingly have been captured by a planet's gravity and become moons — likely candidates include among Mars' moons Phobos and Deimos and most of the distant outer moons of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
The average temperature of the surface of a typical asteroid is minus 100 degrees F (minus 73 degrees C). Asteroids have stayed mostly unchanged for billions of years — as such, research into them could reveal a great deal about the early solar system.
Asteroids come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are solid bodies, while others are smaller piles of rubble bound together by gravity. One, which orbits the sun between Neptune and Uranus, comes with its own set of rings. Another has not one but six tails.
In addition to classifications of asteroids based on their orbits, most asteroids fall into three classes based on composition. The C-type or carbonaceous are greyish in color and are the most common, including more than 75 percent of known asteroids. They probably consist of clay and stony silicate rocks, and inhabit the main belt's outer regions. The S-type or silicaceous asteroids are greenish to reddish in color, account for about 17 percent of known asteroids, and dominate the inner asteroid belt. They appear to be made of silicate materials and nickel-iron. The M-type or metallic asteroids are reddish in color, make up most of the rest of the asteroids, and dwell in the middle region of the main belt. They seem to be made up of nickle-iron. There are many other rare types based on composition as well — for instance, V-type asteroids typified by Vesta have a basaltic, volcanic crust.
Ever since Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago, asteroids and comets have routinely slammed into the planet. The most dangerous asteroids are extremely rare, according to NASA.
An asteroid capable of global disaster would have to be more than a quarter-mile wide. Researchers have estimated that such an impact would raise enough dust into the atmosphere to effectively create a "nuclear winter," severely disrupting agriculture around the world. Asteroids that large strike Earth only once every 1,000 centuries on average, NASA officials say.
Smaller asteroids that are believed to strike Earth every 1,000 to 10,000 years could destroy a city or cause devastating tsunamis.
On Feb. 15, 2013, an asteroid slammed into the atmosphere over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, creating a shock wave that injured 1,200 people. The space rock is thought to have measured about 65 feet (20 meters) wide when it entered Earth's atmosphere.
Dozens of asteroids have been classified as "potentially hazardous" by the scientists who track them. Some of these, whose orbits come close enough to Earth, could potentially be perturbed in the distant future and sent on a collision course with our planet. Scientists point out that if an asteroid is found to be on a collision course with Earth 30 or 40 years down the road, there is time to react. Though the technology would have to be developed, possibilities include exploding the object or diverting it. [Image Gallery: Potentially Dangerous Asteroids]
For every known asteroid, however, there are many that have not been spotted, and shorter reaction times could prove more threatening.
When an asteroid, or a part of it, crashes into Earth, it's called a meteorite. Here are typical compositions:
- Iron: 91 percent
- Nickel: 8.5 percent
- Cobalt: 0.6 percent
- Oxygen: 36 percent
- Iron: 26 percent
- Silicon: 18 percent
- Magnesium: 14 percent
- Aluminum: 1.5 percent
- Nickel: 1.4 percent
- Calcium: 1.3 percent
Discovery & naming
In 1801, while making a star map, Italian priest and astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi accidentally discovered the first and largest asteroid, Ceres, orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. Although Ceres is classified today as a dwarf planet, it accounts for a quarter of all the mass of all the thousands of known asteroids in or near the main asteroid belt.
Since the International Astronomical Union is less strict on how asteroids are named when compared to other bodies, there are asteroids named after Mr. Spock of "Star Trek" and rock musician Frank Zappa, as well as more solemn tributes, such as the seven asteroids named for the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia killed in 2003. Naming asteroids after pets is no longer allowed.
Asteroids are also given numbers — for example, 99942 Apophis.
The first spacecraft to take close-up images of asteroids was NASA's Galileo in 1991, which also discovered the first moon to orbit an asteroid in 1994.
In 2001, after NASA's NEAR spacecraft intensely studied the near-earth asteroid Eros for more than a year from orbit, mission controllers decided to try and land the spacecraft. Although it wasn't designed for landing, NEAR successfully touched down, setting the record as the first to successfully land on an asteroid.
In 2006, Japan's Hayabusa became the first spacecraft to land on and take off from an asteroid. It returned to Earth in June 2010, and the samples it recovered are currently under study.
NASA's Dawn mission, launched in 2007, began exploring Vesta in 2011. After a year, it left the asteroid for a trip to Ceres, with a planned arrival time of 2015. Dawn was the first spacecraft to visit Vesta, and will also be the first to explore Ceres.
In 2012, a company called Planetary Resources, Inc. announced plans to eventually send a mission to a space rock to extract water and mine the asteroid for precious metals. Since then, NASA has begun to work on plans for its own asteroid-capture mission.
Additional reporting by Nola Taylor Redd, Space.com Contributor