Meet the asteroid belt, a place in our solar system where small bodies – mostly rocky and some metallic – orbit the sun. These little worlds are also sometimes called minor planets. They move mostly between the orbits of the fourth planet Mars and fifth planet Jupiter. Astronomers once thought they were all that was left of a rocky planet, long ago torn apart by Jupiter’s gravity. Now, most astronomers now think the asteroid belt is just rubble that Jupiter’s gravity prevented from ever coalescing into a planet. Thus the asterids are likely simply leftovers from the ordinary processes that created our solar system, 4.6 billion years ago.
Their name, asteroid, means starlike. They got this name because – in the early 1800s, when the first asteroids were discovered – astronomers thought they looked like stars. And yet their movement in front of the star background, caused by their nearness to us, showed them to be something other than stars.
Measurements of the amount of material in the asteroid belt suggest it contains about enough material – combined together – to form a body smaller than Earth’s moon.
Comprising an estimated one to two million asteroids more than half a mile (about a km) across, plus untold millions of smaller ones, the asteroid belt contains objects which vary wildly in size. The smallest are probably no bigger than pebbles. The biggest object in the asteroid belt was also the first one to be discovered, in the year 1801. It is 1 Ceres, which measures some 587 miles (945 km). Ceres is now classified as a dwarf planet, by the way, by the International Astronomical Union.
Outer space is vast. And thus, despite there being many millions (possibly billions) of objects in the asteroid belt, the average distance between them is 600,000 miles (about a million km). This means that spacecraft can fly through the asteroid belt without colliding with any asteroids, although, obviously, a chance collision can never be ruled out completely. The asteroid belt is certainly nothing like the densely-packed asteroid fields depicted in fantasies like “Star Wars” and its ilk.
Standing on any asteroid in the belt, you would likely be unable to see any other asteroids, because of their distance.
The asteroid belt lies between 2.2 and 3.2 astronomical units (AU) from our sun. One AU is the distance between the Earth and sun. So the width of the asteroid belt is roughly 1 AU, or 92 million miles (150 million km).
Its thickness is similarly about 1 AU thick.
The asteroid belt is often referred to as the “main” belt to distinguish it from other, smaller groups of asteroids in the solar system such as the Lagrangians (for example, Trojan asteroids orbiting in Jupiter’s orbit around the sun) and Centaurs in the outer solar system.
What was thought to be a homogeneous belt is now known to be slightly more complicated. There are different and distinct zones within the main belt asteroids, especially at its peripheries, where astronomers now recognize the Hungaria group at the inner edge and the Cybele asteroids at the outer. Toward the middle of the belt there is the highly-inclined Phocaea family.
In addition, astronomers have established that the age of asteroids in the main belt also varies. They’ve now classified several asteroid groupings by their age including the Karin family, a group of about 90 main-belt asteroids that share an orbit and are thought to have come from a single object an estimated 5.7 million years ago. And there is the Veritas family, from an estimated 8.3 million years ago. A very recent group is the Datura family, dating from just 530,000 years ago from a collision.
Bottom line: The asteroid belt is a region of our solar system – between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter – in which many small bodies orbit our sun.
Andy Briggs has spent the past 30 years communicating astronomy, astrophysics and information technology to people. You can hear his weekly astronomy and space news update, on Mondays, on the global internet radio channel AstroRadio (http://www.astroradio.earth), where he also contributes to other programmes. He has been active in many astronomy societies in the UK and is a frequent contributor to Astronomy Ireland magazine. Andy also lectures regularly on astrophysics-related themes such as gravitational waves and black holes. He lives in Catalonia, Spain, with his daughter.