Space & Time


Asteroid, one of the many small or minor rocky planetoids that are members of the solar system and that move in elliptical orbits primarily between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.


The largest representatives are 1 Ceres, with a diameter of about 1,003 km (about 623 mi), and 2 Pallas and 4 Vesta, with diameters of about 550 km (about 340 mi). The naming of asteroids is governed by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). After an astronomer observes a possible unknown asteroid, other astronomers confirm the discovery by observing the body over a period of several orbits and comparing the asteroid’s position and orbit to those of known asteroids. If the asteroid is indeed a newly discovered object, the IAU gives it a number according to its order of discovery, and the astronomer who discovered it chooses a name. Asteroids are usually referred to by both number and name.

About 200 asteroids have diameters of more than 97 km (60 mi), and thousands of smaller ones exist. The total mass of all asteroids in the solar system is much less than the mass of the Moon. The larger bodies are roughly spherical, but elongated and irregular shapes are common for those with diameters of less than 160 km (100 mi). Most asteroids, regardless of size, rotate on their axes every 5 to 20 hours. Certain asteroids may be binary, or have satellites of their own.

Few scientists now believe that asteroids are the remnants of a former planet. It is more likely that asteroids occupy a place in the solar system where a sizable planet could have formed but was prevented from doing so by the disruptive gravitational influences of the nearby giant planet Jupiter. Originally perhaps only a few dozen asteroids existed, which were subsequently fragmented by mutual collisions to produce the population now present. Scientists believe that asteroids move out of the asteroid belt because heat from the Sun warms them unevenly. This causes the asteroids to drift slowly away from their original orbits.