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What are Some Prominent Features of the Asteroid Belt?

The asteroid belt is a celestial treasure trove, nestled between Mars and Jupiter, teeming with rocky remnants from our solar system's formation. It boasts millions of asteroids, varying in size from pebbles to dwarf planet Ceres. This region is a key to understanding planetary evolution. What secrets might these ancient space rocks reveal about our cosmic neighborhood? Join us to uncover more.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

The asteroid belt contains 98.5% of the solar system's known asteroids, extending between about 2 astronomical units (AU, or Earth-Sun distances) to 3.3 AU from the Sun. It contains between 700,000 and 1.7 million asteroids over 1 km in diameter, but its total mass is only about 4% of the Moon. The asteroid belt contains a dwarf planet 900 km in diameter, Ceres, and three large asteroids, Vesta, Pallas and Hygiea, with an average diameter of 450 km. These bodies collectively make up half the mass of the asteroid belt.

The asteroid belt exists because the orbits there are extremely stable, determined primarily by gravitational interactions between the Sun and Jupiter. The remaining majority of the protoplanetary disc either became planets, fell into the Sun, or have been ejected in eccentric orbits as comets. Another stable area is the Kuiper belt, located outside the orbit of Neptune, safe from being swept up by the gas giants.

The Asteroid Belt exists in the gap between the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter.
The Asteroid Belt exists in the gap between the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter.

Contrary to depictions in fiction, the asteroid belt looks relatively sparse up close. Numerous unmanned spacecraft have passed through it without a single noticeable collision. However, any long-term colonies there would probably require slightly stronger than usual shielding. The asteroid belt could also be a tremendous source of resources in the future. The carbonaceous, silicate, and metallic asteroids found there would be worth many trillions of dollars at current prices, if they could be utilized.

Up to 1.7 million asteroids wider than 1 kilometer in diameter occupy the asteroid belt.
Up to 1.7 million asteroids wider than 1 kilometer in diameter occupy the asteroid belt.

Due to gravitational agitation by Jupiter, the asteroid belt will never coalesce into a planetary body. If it were going to happen, it would have already done so a long time ago. The constant mutual collisions between asteroid belt bodies cause them to break down faster than they aggregate. Dust from these collisions has too little mass to stay in a stable solar orbit, and slowly spirals down into the Sun over the course of 700,000 years, producing the faint glow in dark night skies known as the zodiacal light.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon143909

cool and helpful, thanks!

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    • The Asteroid Belt exists in the gap between the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter.
      By: Daevid
      The Asteroid Belt exists in the gap between the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter.
    • Up to 1.7 million asteroids wider than 1 kilometer in diameter occupy the asteroid belt.
      By: vencav
      Up to 1.7 million asteroids wider than 1 kilometer in diameter occupy the asteroid belt.