1. A place in space. Asteroids—named by British astronomer William Herschel from the Greek expression meaning “star-like”—are rocky, airless worlds that are too small to be called planets. But what they might lack in size they certainly make up for in number: An estimated 1.1 to 1.9 million asteroids larger than 1 kilometer are in the Main Belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. And there are millions more that are smaller in size. Asteroids range in size from Vesta—the largest at about 329 miles (529 km) wide—to bodies that are just a few feet across.
2. What lies beneath. Asteroids are generally categorized into three types: carbon-rich, silicate, or metallic, or some combination of the three. Why the different types? It all comes down to how far from the sun they formed. Some experienced high temperatures and partly melted, with iron sinking to the center and volcanic lava forced to the surface. The asteroid Vesta is one example we know of today.
3. Small overall. If all of the asteroids were combined into a ball, they would still be much smaller than the Earth’s moon.
4. Except for a big one. In 1801, Giuseppe Piazzi discovered the first and largest asteroid, Ceres, orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres is so large that it encompasses about one-fourth of the estimated total mass of all the asteroids in the asteroid belt. Today, it’s classified as a dwarf planet.
5. Mission to a metal world. NASA’s Psyche mission will launch in 2022 to explore an all-metal asteroid—what could be the core of an early planet—for the very first time. And in October 2021, the Lucy mission will be the first to visit Jupiter’s swarms of Trojan asteroids.
6. Near-Earth asteroids. The term ‘near’ in near-Earth asteroid is actually a misnomer; most of these bodies do not come close to Earth at all. By definition, a near-Earth asteroid is an asteroid that comes within 28 million miles (44 million km) of Earth’s orbit. As of June 19, 2017, there are 16,209 known near-Earth asteroids, with 1,803 classified as potentially hazardous asteroids (those that could someday pose a threat to Earth).
7. Comin’ in hot. About once a year, a car-sized asteroid hits Earth’s atmosphere, creates an impressive fireball, and burns up before reaching the surface.
8. But we’re keeping an eye out. Ground-based observatories and facilities such Pan-STARRS, the Catalina Sky Survey, and ATLAS are constantly on the hunt to detect near-Earth asteroids. NASA also has a small infrared observatory in orbit about the Earth: NEOWISE. In addition to detecting asteroids and comets, NEOWISE also characterizes these small bodies.
9. Buddy system. Roughly one-sixth of the asteroid population have a small companion moon (some even have two moons). The first discovery of an asteroid-moon system was of asteroid Ida and its moon Dactyl in 1993.
10. Earthly visitors. Several NASA space missions have flown and observed asteroids. The NEAR Shoemaker mission landed on asteroid Eros in 2001 and NASA’s Dawn mission was the first mission to orbit an asteroid in 2011. In 2005, the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa landed on asteroid Itokawa. Currently, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx is en route to a near-Earth asteroid called Bennu; it will bring a small sample back to Earth for study.
NASA has more asteroid info here.
Bottom line: 10 facts about asteroids from NASA.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.