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Astronomy

13.1 Asteroids

Astronomy13.1 Asteroids
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  1. Preface
  2. 1 Science and the Universe: A Brief Tour
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 The Nature of Astronomy
    3. 1.2 The Nature of Science
    4. 1.3 The Laws of Nature
    5. 1.4 Numbers in Astronomy
    6. 1.5 Consequences of Light Travel Time
    7. 1.6 A Tour of the Universe
    8. 1.7 The Universe on the Large Scale
    9. 1.8 The Universe of the Very Small
    10. 1.9 A Conclusion and a Beginning
    11. For Further Exploration
  3. 2 Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 2.1 The Sky Above
    3. 2.2 Ancient Astronomy
    4. 2.3 Astrology and Astronomy
    5. 2.4 The Birth of Modern Astronomy
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  4. 3 Orbits and Gravity
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 3.1 The Laws of Planetary Motion
    3. 3.2 Newton’s Great Synthesis
    4. 3.3 Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation
    5. 3.4 Orbits in the Solar System
    6. 3.5 Motions of Satellites and Spacecraft
    7. 3.6 Gravity with More Than Two Bodies
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  5. 4 Earth, Moon, and Sky
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 4.1 Earth and Sky
    3. 4.2 The Seasons
    4. 4.3 Keeping Time
    5. 4.4 The Calendar
    6. 4.5 Phases and Motions of the Moon
    7. 4.6 Ocean Tides and the Moon
    8. 4.7 Eclipses of the Sun and Moon
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  6. 5 Radiation and Spectra
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 5.1 The Behavior of Light
    3. 5.2 The Electromagnetic Spectrum
    4. 5.3 Spectroscopy in Astronomy
    5. 5.4 The Structure of the Atom
    6. 5.5 Formation of Spectral Lines
    7. 5.6 The Doppler Effect
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  7. 6 Astronomical Instruments
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 6.1 Telescopes
    3. 6.2 Telescopes Today
    4. 6.3 Visible-Light Detectors and Instruments
    5. 6.4 Radio Telescopes
    6. 6.5 Observations outside Earth’s Atmosphere
    7. 6.6 The Future of Large Telescopes
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  8. 7 Other Worlds: An Introduction to the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 7.1 Overview of Our Planetary System
    3. 7.2 Composition and Structure of Planets
    4. 7.3 Dating Planetary Surfaces
    5. 7.4 Origin of the Solar System
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  9. 8 Earth as a Planet
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 8.1 The Global Perspective
    3. 8.2 Earth’s Crust
    4. 8.3 Earth’s Atmosphere
    5. 8.4 Life, Chemical Evolution, and Climate Change
    6. 8.5 Cosmic Influences on the Evolution of Earth
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  10. 9 Cratered Worlds
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 9.1 General Properties of the Moon
    3. 9.2 The Lunar Surface
    4. 9.3 Impact Craters
    5. 9.4 The Origin of the Moon
    6. 9.5 Mercury
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  11. 10 Earthlike Planets: Venus and Mars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 10.1 The Nearest Planets: An Overview
    3. 10.2 The Geology of Venus
    4. 10.3 The Massive Atmosphere of Venus
    5. 10.4 The Geology of Mars
    6. 10.5 Water and Life on Mars
    7. 10.6 Divergent Planetary Evolution
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  12. 11 The Giant Planets
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 11.1 Exploring the Outer Planets
    3. 11.2 The Giant Planets
    4. 11.3 Atmospheres of the Giant Planets
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  13. 12 Rings, Moons, and Pluto
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 12.1 Ring and Moon Systems Introduced
    3. 12.2 The Galilean Moons of Jupiter
    4. 12.3 Titan and Triton
    5. 12.4 Pluto and Charon
    6. 12.5 Planetary Rings
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  14. 13 Comets and Asteroids: Debris of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 13.1 Asteroids
    3. 13.2 Asteroids and Planetary Defense
    4. 13.3 The “Long-Haired” Comets
    5. 13.4 The Origin and Fate of Comets and Related Objects
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  15. 14 Cosmic Samples and the Origin of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 14.1 Meteors
    3. 14.2 Meteorites: Stones from Heaven
    4. 14.3 Formation of the Solar System
    5. 14.4 Comparison with Other Planetary Systems
    6. 14.5 Planetary Evolution
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  16. 15 The Sun: A Garden-Variety Star
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 15.1 The Structure and Composition of the Sun
    3. 15.2 The Solar Cycle
    4. 15.3 Solar Activity above the Photosphere
    5. 15.4 Space Weather
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  17. 16 The Sun: A Nuclear Powerhouse
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 16.1 Sources of Sunshine: Thermal and Gravitational Energy
    3. 16.2 Mass, Energy, and the Theory of Relativity
    4. 16.3 The Solar Interior: Theory
    5. 16.4 The Solar Interior: Observations
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  18. 17 Analyzing Starlight
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 17.1 The Brightness of Stars
    3. 17.2 Colors of Stars
    4. 17.3 The Spectra of Stars (and Brown Dwarfs)
    5. 17.4 Using Spectra to Measure Stellar Radius, Composition, and Motion
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  19. 18 The Stars: A Celestial Census
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 18.1 A Stellar Census
    3. 18.2 Measuring Stellar Masses
    4. 18.3 Diameters of Stars
    5. 18.4 The H–R Diagram
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  20. 19 Celestial Distances
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 19.1 Fundamental Units of Distance
    3. 19.2 Surveying the Stars
    4. 19.3 Variable Stars: One Key to Cosmic Distances
    5. 19.4 The H–R Diagram and Cosmic Distances
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  21. 20 Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 20.1 The Interstellar Medium
    3. 20.2 Interstellar Gas
    4. 20.3 Cosmic Dust
    5. 20.4 Cosmic Rays
    6. 20.5 The Life Cycle of Cosmic Material
    7. 20.6 Interstellar Matter around the Sun
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  22. 21 The Birth of Stars and the Discovery of Planets outside the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 21.1 Star Formation
    3. 21.2 The H–R Diagram and the Study of Stellar Evolution
    4. 21.3 Evidence That Planets Form around Other Stars
    5. 21.4 Planets beyond the Solar System: Search and Discovery
    6. 21.5 Exoplanets Everywhere: What We Are Learning
    7. 21.6 New Perspectives on Planet Formation
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  23. 22 Stars from Adolescence to Old Age
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 22.1 Evolution from the Main Sequence to Red Giants
    3. 22.2 Star Clusters
    4. 22.3 Checking Out the Theory
    5. 22.4 Further Evolution of Stars
    6. 22.5 The Evolution of More Massive Stars
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  24. 23 The Death of Stars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 23.1 The Death of Low-Mass Stars
    3. 23.2 Evolution of Massive Stars: An Explosive Finish
    4. 23.3 Supernova Observations
    5. 23.4 Pulsars and the Discovery of Neutron Stars
    6. 23.5 The Evolution of Binary Star Systems
    7. 23.6 The Mystery of the Gamma-Ray Bursts
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  25. 24 Black Holes and Curved Spacetime
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 24.1 Introducing General Relativity
    3. 24.2 Spacetime and Gravity
    4. 24.3 Tests of General Relativity
    5. 24.4 Time in General Relativity
    6. 24.5 Black Holes
    7. 24.6 Evidence for Black Holes
    8. 24.7 Gravitational Wave Astronomy
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  26. 25 The Milky Way Galaxy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 25.1 The Architecture of the Galaxy
    3. 25.2 Spiral Structure
    4. 25.3 The Mass of the Galaxy
    5. 25.4 The Center of the Galaxy
    6. 25.5 Stellar Populations in the Galaxy
    7. 25.6 The Formation of the Galaxy
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  27. 26 Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 26.1 The Discovery of Galaxies
    3. 26.2 Types of Galaxies
    4. 26.3 Properties of Galaxies
    5. 26.4 The Extragalactic Distance Scale
    6. 26.5 The Expanding Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  28. 27 Active Galaxies, Quasars, and Supermassive Black Holes
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 27.1 Quasars
    3. 27.2 Supermassive Black Holes: What Quasars Really Are
    4. 27.3 Quasars as Probes of Evolution in the Universe
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  29. 28 The Evolution and Distribution of Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 28.1 Observations of Distant Galaxies
    3. 28.2 Galaxy Mergers and Active Galactic Nuclei
    4. 28.3 The Distribution of Galaxies in Space
    5. 28.4 The Challenge of Dark Matter
    6. 28.5 The Formation and Evolution of Galaxies and Structure in the Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  30. 29 The Big Bang
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 29.1 The Age of the Universe
    3. 29.2 A Model of the Universe
    4. 29.3 The Beginning of the Universe
    5. 29.4 The Cosmic Microwave Background
    6. 29.5 What Is the Universe Really Made Of?
    7. 29.6 The Inflationary Universe
    8. 29.7 The Anthropic Principle
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  31. 30 Life in the Universe
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 30.1 The Cosmic Context for Life
    3. 30.2 Astrobiology
    4. 30.3 Searching for Life beyond Earth
    5. 30.4 The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  32. A | How to Study for an Introductory Astronomy Class
  33. B | Astronomy Websites, Images, and Apps
  34. C | Scientific Notation
  35. D | Units Used in Science
  36. E | Some Useful Constants for Astronomy
  37. F | Physical and Orbital Data for the Planets
  38. G | Selected Moons of the Planets
  39. H | Future Total Eclipses
  40. I | The Nearest Stars, Brown Dwarfs, and White Dwarfs
  41. J | The Brightest Twenty Stars
  42. K | The Chemical Elements
  43. L | The Constellations
  44. M | Star Chart and Sky Event Resources
  45. Index

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 Wolf at 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 13.1). 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 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)
Table 13.1

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 13.2). 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. All known asteroids as of 2006 are plotted in this diagram of the Solar System. At center is the Sun, with the orbits of the inner planets drawn as blue circles. At the outer edge of the diagram the orbit of Jupiter is drawn as a blue circle. The vast majority of asteroids lie between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, and are plotted here as thousands of white dots. Also plotted are the three “families” of asteroids whose orbits are largely determined by the influence of Jupiter. They are the “Greeks”, located at lower right, the “Trojans” at far left and the “Hildas” at upper right, inside the orbit of Jupiter.
Figure 13.2 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.

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 13.3). 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.

Types of Asteroids and their Locations. In this plot the vertical axis is labeled “Percent of Total”, and ranges from zero at bottom to 100 at the top in increments of 10. The horizontal axis is labeled “Distance from Sun (AU)”, and ranges from 1 at left to 5 on the right, in increments of 1 AU. The “M-type (metallic)” bodies are represented with a dashed black curve beginning around zero percent at 1.9 AU, peaking at about 20% at 2.5 AU, and ending around zero percent at 3.5 AU. The “S-type (stony or silicaceous)” asteroids are shown as a solid red curve beginning at about 20% at 1.3 AU, rising to 70% at 2.3 AU and falling to near zero percent at 4 AU. Finally, the “C-type (carbonaceous)” asteroids are shown with a solid red curve beginning near 20% at 1.6 AU, rising to 90% at 3.3 AU and falling to about 20% at 5 AU.
Figure 13.3 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 13.4), 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.

Photograph of a Piece of Vesta. This photo shows an irregularly shaped metallic fragment from Vesta. The scale at lower right reads “5 cm/2 in.” and is about half the width of the object.
Figure 13.4 Piece of Vesta. This meteorite (rock that fell from space) has been identified as a volcanic fragment from the crust of asteroid Vesta. (credit: modification of work by R. Kempton (New England Meteoritical Services))

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 13.5).

Mathilde, Gaspra, and Ida. The largest, Mathilde, is shown at left. Next, Gaspra, the smallest of the three is at center and Ida is seen at right. All are non-spherical, heavily cratered objects.
Figure 13.5 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. (credit: modification of work by NEAR Project, Galileo Project, NASA)

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 13.6). 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. In this image the moon Dactyl is seen to the right of the elongated, cratered asteroid Ida.
Figure 13.6 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. (credit: modification of work by NASA/JPL)

By the way, Phobos and Deimos, the two small moons of Mars, are probably captured asteroids (Figure 13.7). 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.

Images of Phobos and Deimos. Panel (a), at left, shows Phobos, a brownish, “lumpy” body with many impact craters. Panel (b), at right, shows the lighter colored Deimos. Deimos is much less spherical than Phobos, and has fewer craters.
Figure 13.7 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. (credit a: modification of work by NASA; credit b: modification of work by NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

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 13.8). 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. In this image looking down the length of this somewhat boomerang-shaped asteroid, many craters and surface features can be seen.
Figure 13.8 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. (credit: modification of work by NASA/JHUPL)

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 13.9), 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. This elongated asteroid has no craters and appears to be covered with loose piles of rock.
Figure 13.9 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. (credit: JAXA)

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 13.10), 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.

Image of the Hayabusa Reentry into Earth’s Atmosphere. The main spacecraft broke-up and burned in the upper atmosphere, generating a multitude of bright streaks in the sky.
Figure 13.10 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. (credit: modification of work by NASA Ames/Jesse Carpenter/Greg Merkes)

At the end of 2018, two spacecraft rendezvoused with Near Earth Asteroids (see Asteroids and Planetary Defense) and prepared to land and collect samples for return to Earth. The Japanese Hyabusa2 spacecraft reached Ryugu, and the NASA OSIRIS-REx targeted Bennu. Both of these asteroids, each less than 1 km in diameter, are of the dark, carbonaceous class. Because such objects are water-rich, they are of special interest as possible future space resources. Both asteroids appear to be “rubble piles,” or loosely bound agglomerations of small fragments.

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 13.11). 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. Panel (a), at left, shows an image of Vesta. It is non-spherical and heavily cratered. Panel (b), at right, presents Ceres. Ceres is spherical, and has dark and light surface features, along with mountainous areas visible at upper right.
Figure 13.11 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. (credit a, b: modification of work by NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

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. One big surprise at Ceres is the presence of very bright white spots, associated primarily with the central peaks of large craters (Figure 13.12). The light-colored mineral is primarily salt, released from the interior. After repeated close flybys, data from the NASA Dawn spacecraft indicated that Ceres has (or has had) a subsurface ocean of water, with occasional eruptions on the surface. The most dramatic is the 4 kilometer tall ice volcano called Ahuna Mons (see Figure 13.12).

Occator Crater. In this view, looking directly down on Occator, bright features are seen on the floor of the crater at center and in the upper right.
Figure 13.12 White Spots in a Larger Crater on Ceres. White Spots in a Larger Crater on Ceres. (a) These bright features appear to be salt deposits in a Ceres crater called Occator, which is 92 kilometers across. (b) Ahuna Mons is an isolated mountain on Ceres, 4 kilometers high. It is thought to be an intrusion of ice from the interior. (credit a: modification of work by NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA; credit b: modification of work by NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI)

In late 2017, something entirely new was discovered: an interstellar asteroid. This visitor was found at a distance of 33 million kilometers with a survey telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii. As astronomers followed up on the discovery, it quickly became apparent that this asteroid was travelling far too fast to be part of the Sun’s family. Its orbit is a hyperbola, and when discovered it was already rapidly leaving the inner solar system. Although it was too distant for imaging by even large telescopes, its size and shape could be estimated from its brightness and rapid light fluctuations. It is highly elongated, with an approximately cylindrical shape. The nominal dimensions are about 200 meters in length and only 35 meters across, the most extreme of any natural object. Large objects, like planets and moons, are pulled by their own gravity into roughly spherical shapes, and even small asteroids and comets (often described as “potato-shaped”) rarely have irregularities of more than a factor of two.

This asteroid was named ‘Oumuamua, a Hawaiian word meaning “scout” or “first to reach out.” In a way, the discovery of an interstellar asteroid or comet was not unexpected. Early in solar system history, before the planet orbits sorted themselves into stable, non-intersecting paths all in the same plane, we estimate that quite a lot of mass was ejected, either whole planets or more numerous smaller fragments. Even today, an occasional comet coming in from the outer edges of the solar system can have its orbit changed by gravitational interaction with Jupiter and the Sun, and some of these escape on hyperbolic trajectories. As we have recently learned that planetary systems are common, the question became: where are similar debris objects ejected from other planetary systems? Now we have found one, and improved surveys will soon add others to this category.

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