Asteroid belt

Asteroid belt is a torus-shaped region in the Solar System, located roughly between the orbits of the planets Jupiter and Mars. It contains a great many solid, irregularly shaped bodies, of many sizes but much smaller than planets, called asteroids or minor planets.

This asteroid belt is also called the main asteroid belt or main belt to distinguish it from other asteroid populations in the Solar System such as near-Earth asteroids and trojan asteroids.

The asteroid belt is the smallest and innermost known circumstellar disc in the Solar System. About half its mass is contained in the four largest asteroids: Ceres, Vesta, Pallas, and Hygiea. The total mass of the asteroid belt is approximately 4% that of the Moon.

Ceres, the only object in the asteroid belt large enough to be a dwarf planet, is about 950 km in diameter, whereas Vesta, Pallas, and Hygiea have mean diameters of less than 600 km.

The remaining bodies range down to the size of a dust particle. The asteroid material is so thinly distributed that numerous unmanned spacecraft have traversed it without incident.

Nonetheless, collisions between large asteroids do occur, and these can produce an asteroid family whose members have similar orbital characteristics and compositions. Individual asteroids within the asteroid belt are categorized by their spectra, with most falling into three basic groups: carbonaceous, silicate, and metal-rich.

The asteroid belt formed from the primordial solar nebula as a group of planetesimals (smaller precursors of the protoplanets). Between Mars and Jupiter, however, gravitational perturbations from Jupiter imbued the protoplanets with too much orbital energy for them to accrete into a planet.

Collisions became too violent, and instead of fusing together, the planetesimals and most of the protoplanets shattered. As a result, 99.9% of the asteroid belt’s original mass was lost in the first 100 million years of the Solar System’s history.

Some fragments eventually found their way into the inner Solar System, leading to meteorite impacts with the inner planets. Asteroid orbits continue to be appreciably perturbed whenever their period of revolution about the Sun forms an orbital resonance with Jupiter.

At these orbital distances, a Kirkwood gap occurs as they are swept into other orbits.

Classes of small Solar System bodies in other regions are the near-Earth objects, the centaurs, the Kuiper belt objects, the scattered disc objects, the sednoids, and the Oort cloud objects.

On 22 January 2014, ESA scientists reported the detection, for the first definitive time, of water vapor on Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. The detection was made by using the far-infrared abilities of the Herschel Space Observatory.

The finding was unexpected because comets, not asteroids, are typically considered to “sprout jets and plumes”. According to one of the scientists, “The lines are becoming more and more blurred between comets and asteroids”.

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