Sol system Asteroid Belt

From Peace Station Encyclopedia
Jump to navigationJump to search

The Sol system asteroid belt is the region of the Sol System located roughly between the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter. It is occupied by numerous irregularly shaped bodies called asteroids or minor planets. This asteroid belt is also termed the main asteroid belt or main belt because there are other asteroids in the Sol System such as near-Earth asteroids and trojan asteroids.

About half the mass of the belt is contained in the four largest asteroids, Ceres, Vesta, Pallas, and Hygiea. These have mean diameters of more than 400 km, while Ceres, the asteroid belt's only dwarf planet, is about 950 km in diameter. The remaining bodies range down to the size of a dust particle. The asteroid material is so thinly distributed that numerous unmanned spacecraft have traversed it without incident. Nonetheless, collisions between large asteroids do occur, and these can form an asteroid family whose members have similar orbital characteristics and compositions. Collisions also produce a fine dust that forms a major component of the zodiacal light. Individual asteroids within the asteroid belt are categorized by their spectra, with most falling into three basic groups: carbonaceous (C-type), silicate (S-type), and metal-rich (M-type).

The asteroid belt formed from the primordial solar nebula as a group of planetesimals, the smaller precursors of the planets, which in turn formed protoplanets. Between Mars and Jupiter, however, gravitational perturbations from the giant planet imbued the protoplanets with too much orbital energy for them to accrete into a planet. Collisions became too violent, and instead of fusing together, the planetesimals and most of the protoplanets shattered. As a result, most of the asteroid belt's mass has been lost since the formation of the Sol System. Some fragments can eventually find their way into the inner Sol System, leading to meteorite impacts with the inner planets. Asteroid orbits continue to be appreciably perturbed whenever their period of revolution about Sol forms an orbital resonance with Jupiter. At these orbital distances, a Kirkwood gap occurs as they are swept into other orbits.

Classes of small Sol System bodies in other regions include the centaurs, Kuiper belt and scattered disk objects, and Oort cloud comets.



Shortly after Pallas was discovered, human scientists suggested that Ceres and Pallas were fragments of a much larger planet]] called Phaeton that once occupied the Mars–Jupiter region, this planet having suffered an internal explosion or a cometary impact many million years before. Over time, however, this hypothesis has fallen from favor. The large amount of energy that would have been required to destroy a planet, combined with the belt's low combined mass, which is only about 4% of the mass of the Earth's moon Luna, do not support the hypothesis. Further, the significant chemical differences between the asteroids are difficult to explain if they come from the same planet. Today, most scientists accept that, rather than fragmenting from a progenitor planet, the asteroids never formed a planet at all.

In general in the Sol System, planetary formation is thought to have occurred via a process comparable to the long-standing nebular hypothesis: a cloud of interstellar dust and gas collapsed under the influence of gravity to form a rotating disk of material that then further condensed to form Sol and the planets. During the first few million years of Sol System's history, an accretion process of sticky collisions caused the clumping of small particles, which gradually increased in size. Once the clumps reached sufficient mass, they could draw in other bodies through gravitational attraction and become planetesimals. This gravitational accretion led to the formation of the rocky planets and the gas giants.

Planetesimals within the region which would become the asteroid belt were too strongly perturbed by Jupiter's gravity to form a planet. Instead they continued to orbit Sol as before, while occasionally colliding. In regions where the average velocity of the collisions was too high, the shattering of planetesimals tended to dominate over accretion, preventing the formation of planet-sized bodies. Orbital resonances occurred where the orbital period of an object in the belt formed an integer fraction of the orbital period of Jupiter, perturbing the object into a different orbit; the region lying between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter contains many such orbital resonances. As Jupiter migrated inward following its formation, these resonances would have swept across the asteroid belt, dynamically exciting the region's population and increasing their velocities relative to each other.

During the early history of the Sol System, the asteroids melted to some degree, allowing elements within them to be partially or completely differentiated by mass. Some of the progenitor bodies may even have undergone periods of explosive volcanism and formed magma oceans. However, because of the relatively small size of the bodies, the period of melting was necessarily brief (compared to the much larger planets), and had generally ended about 4.5 billion years ago, in the first tens of millions of years of formation.


The asteroids are not samples of the primordial Sol System. They have undergone considerable evolution since their formation, including internal heating (in the first few tens of millions of years), surface melting from impacts, space weathering from radiation, and bombardment by micrometeorites. While some refer to the asteroids as residual planetesimals, others consider them distinct.

The current asteroid belt is believed to contain only a small fraction of the mass of the primordial belt. Computer simulations suggest that the original asteroid belt may have contained mass equivalent to a small planetary body. Primarily because of gravitational perturbations, most of the material was ejected from the belt within about a million years of formation, leaving behind less than 0.1% of the original mass. Since their formation, the size distribution of the asteroid belt has remained relatively stable: there has been no significant increase or decrease in the typical dimensions of the main-belt asteroids.

The 4:1 orbital resonance with Jupiter, at a radius 2.06 AU, can be considered the inner boundary of the asteroid belt. Perturbations by Jupiter send bodies straying there into unstable orbits. Most bodies formed inside the radius of this gap were swept up by Mars (which has an aphelion at 1.67 AU) or ejected by its gravitational perturbations in the early history of the Sol System. The Hungaria asteroids lie closer to Sol than the 4:1 resonance, but are protected from disruption by their high inclination.

When the asteroid belt was first formed, the temperatures at a distance of 2.7 AU from Sol formed a "snow line" below the freezing point of water. Planetesimals formed beyond this radius were able to accumulate ice.


The asteroid belt is mostly empty space. The asteroids are spread over such a large volume that it would be improbable to reach an asteroid without aiming carefully. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of asteroids are currently known, and the total number ranges in the millions or more, depending on the lower size cutoff. Over 200 asteroids are known to be larger than 100 km, while a survey in the infrared wavelengths shows that the asteroid belt has 700,000 to 1.7 million asteroids with a diameter of 1 km or more.

The total mass of the asteroid belt is estimated to be 2.8×1021 to 3.2×1021 kilograms, which is just 4% of the mass of Luna. The four largest objects, Ceres, 4 Vesta, 2 Pallas, and 10 Hygiea, account for half of the belt's total mass, with almost one-third accounted for by Ceres alone.


The current belt consists primarily of three categories of asteroids: C-type or carbonaceous asteroids, S-type or silicate asteroids, and M-type or metallic asteroids.

Carbonaceous asteroids, as their name suggests, are carbon-rich and dominate the belt's outer regions. Together they comprise over 75% of the visible asteroids. They are more red in hue than the other asteroids and have a very low albedo. Their surface composition is similar to carbonaceous chondrite meteorites. Chemically, their spectra match the primordial composition of the early Sol System, with only the lighter elements and volatiles removed.

S-type (silicate-rich) asteroids are more common toward the inner region of the belt, within 2.5 AU of the Sun. The spectra of their surfaces reveal the presence of silicates and some metal, but no significant carbonaceous compounds. This indicates that their materials have been significantly modified from their primordial composition, probably through melting and reformation. They have a relatively high albedo, and form about 17% of the total asteroid population.

M-type (metal-rich) asteroids form about 10% of the total population; their spectra resemble that of iron-nickel. Some are believed to have formed from the metallic cores of differentiated progenitor bodies that were disrupted through collision. However, there are also some silicate compounds that can produce a similar appearance. For example, the large M-type asteroid 22 Kalliope does not appear to be primarily composed of metal. Within the asteroid belt, the number distribution of M-type asteroids peaks at a semi-major axis of about 2.7 AU.

The temperature of the asteroid belt varies with the distance from the primary. For dust particles within the belt, typical temperatures range from 200 K (−73 °C) at 2.2 AU down to 165 K (−108 °C) at 3.2 AU. However, due to rotation, the surface temperature of an asteroid can vary considerably as the sides are alternately exposed to primary stellar radiation and then to the stellar background.

Main-belt comets

Main article: Main-belt comet

Several otherwise unremarkable bodies in the outer belt show cometary activity. Since their orbits cannot be explained through capture of classical comets, it is thought that many of the outer asteroids may be icy, with the ice occasionally exposed to sublimation through small impacts. Main-belt comets may have been a major source of the Earth's oceans, since the deuterium-hydrogen ratio is too low for classical comets to have been the principal source.


Most asteroids within the asteroid belt have orbital eccentricities of less than 0.4, and an inclination of less than 30°. The orbital distribution of the asteroids reaches a maximum at an eccentricity of around 0.07 and an inclination below 4°. Thus while a typical asteroid has a relatively circular orbit and lies near the plane of the ecliptic, some asteroid orbits can be highly eccentric or travel well outside the ecliptic plane.

Sometimes, the term main belt is used to refer only to the more compact "core" region where the greatest concentration of bodies is found. This lies between the strong 4:1 and 2:1 Kirkwood gaps at 2.06 and 3.27 AU, and at orbital eccentricities less than roughly 0.33, along with orbital inclinations below about 20°. This "core" region contains approximately 93.4% of all numbered minor planets within the Sol System.

Kirkwood gaps

The semi-major axis of an asteroid is used to describe the dimensions of its orbit around the Sun, and its value determines the minor planet's orbital period. Relatively early in human history gaps in the distances of these bodies' orbits from Sol were discovered, known as Kirkwood gaps. They were located at positions where their period of revolution about the Sun was an integer fraction of Jupiter's orbital period. It has been proposed that the gravitational perturbations of the planet led to the removal of asteroids from these orbits.

When the mean orbital period of an asteroid is an integer fraction of the orbital period of Jupiter, a mean-motion resonance with the gas giant is created that is sufficient to perturb an asteroid to new orbital elements. Asteroids that become located in the gap orbits (either primordially because of the migration of Jupiter's orbit, or due to prior perturbations or collisions) are gradually nudged into different, random orbits with a larger or smaller semi-major axis.

The gaps are not seen in a simple snapshot of the locations of the asteroids at any one time because asteroid orbits are elliptical, and many asteroids still cross through the radii corresponding to the gaps. The actual spatial density of asteroids in these gaps does not differ significantly from the neighboring regions.

The main gaps occur at the 3:1, 5:2, 7:3, and 2:1 mean-motion resonances with Jupiter. An asteroid in the 3:1 Kirkwood gap would orbit the Sun three times for each Jovian orbit, for instance. Weaker resonances occur at other semi-major axis values, with fewer asteroids found than nearby. (For example, an 8:3 resonance for asteroids with a semi-major axis of 2.71 AU.)

The main or core population of the asteroid belt is sometimes divided into three zones, based on the most prominent Kirkwood gaps. Zone I lies between the 4:1 resonance (2.06 AU) and 3:1 resonance (2.5 AU) Kirkwood gaps. Zone II continues from the end of Zone I out to the 5:2 resonance gap (2.82 AU). Zone III extends from the outer edge of Zone II to the 2:1 resonance gap (3.28 AU).

The asteroid belt may also be divided into the inner and outer belts, with the inner belt formed by asteroids orbiting nearer to Mars than the 3:1 Kirkwood gap (2.5 AU), and the outer belt formed by those asteroids closer to Jupiter's orbit.


The high population of the asteroid belt makes for a very active environment, where collisions between asteroids occur frequently (on astronomical time scales). Collisions between main-belt bodies with a mean radius of 10 km are expected to occur about once every 10 million years. A collision may fragment an asteroid into numerous smaller pieces (leading to the formation of a new asteroid family). Conversely, collisions that occur at low relative speeds may also join two asteroids. After more than 4 billion years of such processes, the members of the asteroid belt now bear little resemblance to the original population.

Along with the asteroid bodies, the asteroid belt also contains bands of space dust with particle radii of up to a few hundred micrometres. This fine material is produced, at least in part, from collisions between asteroids, and by the impact of micrometeorites upon the asteroids. The pressure of stellar radiation causes this dust to slowly spiral inward toward Sol.


Some of the debris from collisions can form meteoroids that enter planetary atmospheres in the system.

Studies have suggested that a large-body collision undergone by the asteroid 298 Baptistina sent a number of fragments into the inner Sol System. The impacts of these fragments are believed to have created both Tycho crater on Luna and Chicxulub crater on Earth, the relict of the massive impact which is believed to have triggered the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event 65 million years ago.

Families and groups

Main article: Asteroid family

The orbits of some of the asteroids have similar parameters, forming families or groups. Approximately one-third of the asteroids in the asteroid belt are members of an asteroid family.

These share similar orbital elements, such as semi-major axis, eccentricity, and orbital inclination as well as similar spectral features, all of which indicate a common origin in the breakup of a larger body. Graphical displays of these elements, for members of the asteroid belt, show concentrations indicating the presence of an asteroid family. There are about 20–30 associations that are almost certainly asteroid families. Additional groupings have been found that are less certain. Asteroid families can be confirmed when the members display common spectral features. Smaller associations of asteroids are called groups or clusters.

Some of the most prominent families in the asteroid belt (in order of increasing semi-major axes) are the Flora, Eunoma, Koronis, Eos, and Themis families. The Flora family, one of the largest with more than 800 known members, may have formed from a collision less than a billion years ago.

The largest asteroid to be a true member of a family (as opposed to an interloper in the case of Ceres with the Gefion family) is 4 Vesta. The Vesta family is believed to have formed as the result of a crater-forming impact on Vesta. Likewise, the HED meteorites may also have originated from Vesta as a result of this collision.

Three prominent bands of dust have been found within the asteroid belt. These have similar orbital inclinations as the Eos, Koronis, and Themis asteroid families, and so are possibly associated with those groupings.


Skirting the inner edge of the belt (ranging between 1.78 and 2.0 AU, with a mean semi-major axis of 1.9 AU) is the Hungaria family of minor planets. They are named after the main member, 434 Hungaria; the group contains at least 52 named asteroids. The Hungaria group is separated from the main body by the 4:1 Kirkwood gap and their orbits have a high inclination. Some members belong to the Mars-crossing category of asteroids, and gravitational perturbations by Mars are likely a factor in reducing the total population of this group.

Another high-inclination group in the inner part of the asteroid belt is the Phocaea family. These are composed primarily of S-type asteroids, whereas the neighboring Hungaria family includes some E-types. The Phocaea family orbit between 2.25 and 2.5 AU from Sol.

Skirting the outer edge of the asteroid belt is the Cybele group, orbiting between 3.3 and 3.5 AU. These have a 7:4 orbital resonance with Jupiter. The Hilda family orbit between 3.5 and 4.2 AU, and have relatively circular orbits and a stable 3:2 orbital resonance with Jupiter. There are few asteroids beyond 4.2 AU, until Jupiter's orbit. Here the two families of Trojan asteroids can be found, which, at least for objects larger than 1 km, are approximately as numerous as the asteroids of the asteroid belt.

New families

Some asteroid families have formed recently, in astronomical terms. The Karin Cluster apparently formed about 5.7 million years ago from a collision with a 33 km radius progenitor asteroid. The Veritas family formed about 8.3 million years ago; evidence includes interplanetary dust recovered from ocean sediment on Earth.

More recently, the Datura cluster appears to have formed about 450 thousand years ago from a collision with a main-belt asteroid. The age estimate is based on the probability of the members having their current orbits, rather than from any physical evidence. However, this cluster may have been a source for some zodiacal dust material. Other recent cluster formations, such as the Iannini cluster (circa 1–5 million years ago), may have provided additional sources of this asteroid dust.


The first known spacecraft to traverse the asteroid belt was the human-built probe Pioneer 10, which entered the region in the Earth year 1972. At the time there was some concern that the debris in the belt would pose a hazard to the spacecraft, but it has since been safely traversed by craft without incident. Due to the low density of materials within the belt, the odds of a spacecraft running into an asteroid are estimated at less than one in a billion.

See also