8 Astounding Facts About the Asteroid Belt

An artist's conception of the dwarf planet Ceres in the main asteroid belt.
An artist's conception of the dwarf planet Ceres in the main asteroid belt.
ESA/ATG medialab

The asteroid belt tells the story of the creation of the solar system. When it formed, not everything coalesced into a planet. Like LEGO bricks that never made it out of the bucket, these objects were organized by physics into a ring located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. This is the asteroid belt. Here are some things you might not know about it.

1. THERE ARE MORE THAN A HALF-MILLION ASTEROIDS.

The asteroid belt in black and white.
iStock

Over a half-million asteroids have been discovered by scientists, with hundreds of thousands yet to be found. They are generally divided into three classes: S-type (for stony); C-type (chondrites, largely composed of carbon, the most common—and perhaps the oldest—of the bunch); and M-type (metallic). The asteroids range in length from 30 feet to 330 miles. For the most part, they are oddly shaped, and, like the planets, spin (though not always so eloquently). Some asteroids have moons; some have two. Not every asteroid is located in the asteroid belt. Some, called Trojans, share the orbit of Jupiter. Some lurk perilously close to Earth. These are called near-Earth asteroids.

2. ASTEROID MEANS "STAR-LIKE."

A night sky with a shooting star.
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The first asteroid was discovered in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi, though he didn't know it at the time. He thought he had discovered the long-sought planet between Mars and Jupiter. He named his discovery Ceres, after the Roman goddess of harvest (and namesake to the word cereal, though that word wouldn't be coined until 1818).

Just over a year later, another "planet" was discovered. And another. And another. Eventually, there were so many planets that astronomers threw up their hands and gave the whole group a new classification: asteroid, or "star-like" in Greek. The name was chosen because they appeared, well, star-like in telescopes; they would not resolve as discs as planets do. Ceres's run as a planet lasted about 60 years before it was demoted to asteroid. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union reclassified it again, this time as a dwarf planet. This is the same decision that designated Pluto as a dwarf planet, though there is some debate on this point.

3. ALL THE ASTEROIDS IN IT DON'T ADD UP TO MUCH.

An artists' rendering of the asteroid belt.
iStock

It's likely that illustrations you've seen of the asteroid belt are not drawn to scale. If all of the objects in the asteroid belt were brought together and made into a single ball, its combined mass would only be 4 percent of the size of the Moon. In fact, Ceres alone accounts for one-third of the total mass of the asteroid belt. 

4. FLY YOUR SPACESHIP INTO IT. YOU WON'T HIT ANYTHING.

A little girl plays with a toy rocketship in a space system.
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What’s the biggest misconception that people have about the asteroid belt? Mental Floss asked Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu (which once lived in the main asteroid belt before being jarred loose by Saturn and sent on a course for the inner solar system). His response: The Empire Strikes Back. People imagine "that it's this tumbling, highly energetic boulder field with things crashing into each other constantly, and Han Solo has to dodge and weave to avoid collisions," Lauretta says.

But the asteroid belt is downright spacious. If the arcade game Asteroids were real, it would pretty much consist of a ship and a black screen and … nothing to shoot. "When you fly a spacecraft through the asteroid belt, it’s a real challenge to actually get close enough to an asteroid to see it," Lauretta explains. "You have to specifically target it." There are, on average, 620,000–1.8 million miles between asteroids.

5. THE HISTORY OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM IS HIDDEN WITHIN.

An artist's concept of the solar system.
iStock

Back in the 1980s, scientists really set about spectrally classifying each object in the asteroid belt, and they discovered a compositional gradient. There were a lot of dark, carbonaceous objects in the outer asteroid belt, and brighter, "ordinary chondritic," S-type material in the inner asteroid belt. Spectral surveys today are starting to get really detailed, and scientists are getting a good look at objects as small as 6 miles across. As they get into asteroid compositions, they are discovering a fine structure in the compositional pattern, and placing it in the context of the dynamic state of the early solar system.

"Organics and ices are going to be stable farther out [in the belt], and metals and rocks are going to be stable farther in. You expect to see that," says Lauretta. "But now you're starting to see that there really are organic-rich and water-rich materials in the main belt. It's a small fraction of it, but it's a significant fraction. And there's rocky and bright material in the outer belt." That distribution of material is a record of migration of giant planets and the dynamical evolution of the solar system.

"I think we're going to be able to piece together a much more complex, chemical-dynamical coupled model of the evolution of the solar system, and see it almost like the stratigraphic layers of the geologic record. It will tell us the story of the evolution of the belt—not just the initial protoplanetary disk which established that chemistry, but how major events in the evolution of our solar system modified that distribution."

6. SCIENTISTS ARE SEARCHING FOR ITS MOST ANCIENT OBJECTS.

An asteroid in space.
iStock

Presently, planetary scientists are trying to identify and understand the primordial structures in the asteroid belt much in the same way that paleontologists or geologists search for the earliest signs of the origin of life in the geologic record. "That's where the biggest challenge lies," says Lauretta. "There is, in the most ancient examples, a discrete signal that you've got to pull out. It's going to be very tiny."

Scientists endeavor to understand what has been preserved from the dawn of the solar system—what they can trust as a true primordial signature of how our planetary system formed—versus what has been eroded or modified or changed over 4.5 billion years of evolution. "Trying to pick out that starting condition and targeting our scientific investigations into those areas is where the greatest challenge lies."

NASA's recently announced Lucy mission to multiple asteroids will help do this. "Everybody thinks those Trojans are the ones that hold that key to the earliest, most primitive material of the solar system," says Lauretta. "The Lucy team can get out there and do some cool science."

7. ASTEROIDS ARE LIKE SNOWFLAKES.

A snowflake in snow on a dark background.
iStock

No two are exactly alike, and each one has its own story to tell. "Every asteroid is a unique world to explore, and that is awesome," says Lauretta. "There is so much diversity and so many challenges out there. When we truly get out there and start poking around, we're going to see some stuff happening that we never even dreamed of."

8. NASA IS GOING BIG ON ASTEROIDS.

An artist's drawing of Dawn firing its engines above Ceres.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is currently in orbit around Ceres, where it continues to characterize that object and how it changes as it circles the Sun. (It previously orbited Vesta, making it the only spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial bodies.) NASA's OSIRIS-REx will arrive at the asteroid Bennu in August 2018. Earlier this year, the agency approved two missions to small bodies: the spacecraft Psyche will travel to the asteroid 16 Psyche, a mysterious, all-metal world. (It might once have been the core of a protoplanet.) The Lucy mission will travel to five Trojan asteroids that share Jupiter's orbit. The Japanese Space Agency's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft will arrive next year at Ryugu (a.k.a. 1999 JU3), a near-Earth asteroid. Like OSIRIS-REx, it will take a sample and return it to Earth for analysis.

And that analysis is serious business. In the case of samples and meteorites, Lauretta says, "most people don't realize that we pick apart these things grain by grain, atom by atom, isotope ratio by isotope ratio, and put together detailed stories about what happened billions of years ago in our solar system."

The Leonid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend—Here's the Best Way to Watch It

mdesigner125/iStock via Getty Images
mdesigner125/iStock via Getty Images

We're nearing the end of 2019, but there are still a few astronomical events to catch before the year is s out. This Sunday—November 17—the Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak. Here's everything you need to know before viewing the spectacle.

What is the Leonid meteor shower?

Like all meteor showers, the Leonids are caused by meteoroids from outer space burning up on their descent toward Earth. These particular shooting stars come from the rocky tail of Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. Each November, debris from the comet pummels the Earth's atmosphere, causing meteors to light up the sky at rates that can exceed 1000 per hour.

The Leonids won't reach that frequency this year. According to EarthSky, the meteors would peak at a rate of around 10 to 15 per hour in a dark, moonless sky. But because the moon will be bright this weekend, sky-gazers will likely see less of them, with only the brightest shooting stars shining through.

How to See the Leonids

For your best chance of spotting the Leonids, look up the night of Sunday, November 17 and early in the morning of Monday, November 18. The shower reaches its peak after midnight. The moon will be in its waning gibbous phase at that time, so even with clear skies, viewing conditions won't be ideal. But there are ways to increase your chances of seeing as many meteors as possible. Try finding a large object to stand under—such as a tree or building—that will block your view of the moon. If you don't see anything right away, be patient: The more time you give your eyes to adjust to the darkness, the more likely you are to spot a shooting star.

What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

NASA
NASA

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding. For the remainder of 2019, that means October 31-November 20. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?

The History of "Mercury in Retrograde"

Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.

What is Mercury in Retrograde?

Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This piece originally ran in 2018.

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