January 28, 2022 7 min read
At first glance, looking at a bunch of space rocks doesn’t sound that exciting. What use can these asteroids be off in understanding the Solar System in comparison to the planets or moons?
Turns out that asteroids are key to figuring out how the Solar System came to be, and that they’re more interesting than they appear at first glance.
Below, we have some interesting facts about asteroids that will make you reconsider that biased first impression.
Asteroids are leftovers of the Solar System
The leading theory about how our neighbourhood came to be is this: the Sun coalesced from a compressed grouping of gas that eventually began fusing atoms and creating a protostar. Meanwhile, the dust and debris nearby the Sun began to coalesce. Small grains became small rocks, which crashed into each other to form bigger ones. The survivors of this chaotic period are the planets and the moons that we see today as well as a few smaller bodies. By studying asteroids, for example, we get a sense of what the Solar System used to look like billions of years ago.
Asteroids are made of different things.
In general, an asteroid’s composition is determined by how close it is to the Sun. Our nearby star’s pressure and heat tend to melt ice that is close by and to blow out lighter elements. There are many kinds of asteroids, but these are the three main types, according to NASA:
Dark C (carbonaceous) asteroids, make up most asteroids and are in the outer belt. They’re believed to be close to the Sun’s composition, with little hydrogen or helium or other “volatile” elements.
Bright S (silicaceous) asteroids are in the inner belt. They tend to be metallic iron with some silicates of iron and magnesium.
Most of the asteroids are in belts
Source: Space Answers
While there are asteroids all over the Solar System, there’s a huge collection of them between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Some astronomers think that it could have formed into a planet if Jupiter was not nearby. By the way, this “belt” may erroneously create the impression that it is chock full of asteroids and require some fancy Millennium Falcon-style manoeuvring, but in reality, there are usually hundreds or thousands of miles in between individual asteroids. This shows the Solar System is a big place.
Asteroids also lurk near Planets
NASA also has classifications for this asteroid type. Trojans stay in the same orbit as a planet, but they “hover” in a special spot known as a Lagrangian point that balances the pull of the planet’s gravity and the pull of the Sun. Trojans near Mars, Jupiter, and Neptune have been discovered — as well as at least one near-Earth in 2011. We also have near-Earth asteroids, which cross our orbit and could (statistically speaking) one day pose a threat to our planet. That said, no one has yet identified anyone asteroid that will one day collide with our planet for sure.
Asteroids have moons.
While we think of moons as something that orbits a planet, asteroids also have smaller bodies that orbit them! The first known one was Dactyl, which was discovered in 1993 to be orbiting a larger asteroid called Ida. More than 150 asteroids are known to have moons, with more being discovered periodically. A more recent example is one discovered orbiting Asteroid 2004 BL86, which passed 750,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) from Earth in early 2015.
Asteroids are too important to support life
Impactors strike during the reign of the dinosaurs (image credit: MasPix/devianart) Impactors strike during the reign of the dinosaurs (image credit: MasPix/devianart) Despite their small size, water may flow on asteroid surfaces. Observations of Vesta released in 2015 show gullies that may have been carved by water. The theory is that when a smaller asteroid slams into a bigger one, the small asteroid releases a layer of ice in the bigger asteroid it hit. The force of the impact briefly turned the ice into water, which streaked across the surface. (As for how the ice got there in the first place, it’s possible that comets deposited it in some way — but that’s still being investigated as well.)
Are you someone who likes to explore celestial events and planetary movements? The Practically app has some interesting 3D videos, AR experiences, and simulations for you that can offer you life-like learning experiences. Head to the Practically app and know more about our amazing planet and the solar system.
We will soon be back with another round of one such marvelous cosmic event in the Cosmic Saga series. Till then, stay tuned and Learn Practically!
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