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belt between the orbits of mars and jupiter

belt between the orbits of mars and jupiter

belt between the orbits of mars and jupiter

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Asteroid belt

The asteroid belt is a torus-shaped region in the Solar System, located roughly between the orbits of the planets Jupiter and Mars. It contains a great many solid, irregularly shaped bodies, of many sizes but much smaller than planets, called asteroids or minor planets. This asteroid belt is also called the main asteroid belt or main belt to distinguish it from other asteroid populations in the Solar System such as near-Earth asteroids and trojan asteroids.

The asteroid belt is the smallest and innermost known circumstellar disc in the Solar System. About half its mass is contained in the four largest asteroids: Ceres, Vesta, Pallas, and Hygiea. The total mass of the asteroid belt is approximately 4% that of the Moon.

belt between the orbits of mars and jupiter
belt between the orbits of mars and jupiter

950 km

Ceres, the only object in the asteroid belt large enough to be a dwarf planet, is about 950 km in diameter, whereas Vesta, Pallas, and Hygiea have mean diameters of less than 600 km. 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 produce an asteroid family whose members have similar orbital characteristics and compositions. 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).

Gravitational perturbations

The asteroid belt formed from the primordial solar nebula as a group of planetesimals. Planetesimals are the smaller precursors of the protoplanets. Between Mars and Jupiter, however, gravitational perturbations from Jupiter 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, 99.9% of the asteroid belt’s original mass was lost in the first 100 million years of the Solar System’s history. Some fragments eventually found their way into the inner Solar System, leading to meteorite impacts with the inner planets. Asteroid orbits continue to be appreciably perturbed whenever their period of revolution about the Sun forms an orbital resonance with Jupiter. At these orbital distances, a Kirkwood gap occurs as they are swept into other orbits.


Classes of small Solar System bodies in other regions are the near-Earth objects, the centaurs, the Kuiper belt objects, the scattered disc objects, the sednoids, and the Oort cloud objects.

On 22 January 2014, ESA scientists reported the detection, for the first definitive time, of water vapor on Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. The detection was made by using the far-infrared abilities of the Herschel Space Observatory. The finding was unexpected because comets, not asteroids, are typically considered to “sprout jets and plumes”. According to one of the scientists, “The lines are becoming more and more blurred between comets and asteroids”.


Early in the life of the solar system, dust and rock circling the sun were pulled together by gravity into planets. But not all of the ingredients created new worlds. A region between Mars and Jupiter became the asteroid belt.

Occasionally people wonder whether the belt was made up of the remains of a destroyed planet, or a world that didn’t quite get started. However, according to NASA, the total mass of the belt is less than the moon, far too small to weigh in as a planet. Instead, the debris is shepherded by Jupiter, which kept it from coalescing onto other growing planets.

First 5 million years of the solar system

Observations of other planets are helping scientists to better understand the solar system. According to a developing theory known as Grand Tack, in the first 5 million years of the solar system, Jupiter and Saturn are thought to have moved inward toward the sun before changing direction and heading back to the outer solar system. Along the way, they would have scattered the original asteroid belt before them, then sent material flying back to refill it.

“In the Grand Tack model, the asteroid belt was purged at a very early stage and the surviving members sample a much larger region of the solar nebula,” John Chambers of the Carnegie Institution for Science wrote in a “Perspectives” piece published online in the journal Science.

Michael Jura

Our solar system isn’t the only one to boast an asteroid belt. A cloud of dust around a star known as zeta Leporis looks a lot like a young belt. “Zeta Leporis is a relatively young star — approximately the age of our sun when the Earth was forming,” Michael Jura said in a statement. “The system we observed around zeta Leporis is similar to what we think occurred in the early years of our own solar system when planets and asteroids were created.” A professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Jura has since passed away.

Other stars also contain signs of asteroid belts, suggesting that may be common. At the same time, studies of white dwarfs, sun-like stars at the end of their lifetimes, show signatures of rocky material falling onto their surface that suggest such belts are common around dying systems.

belt between the orbits of mars and jupiter
belt between the orbits of mars and jupiter

Building a belt

The Main Belt lies between Mars and Jupiter, roughly two to four times the Earth-sun distance, and spans a region about 140 million miles across. Objects in the belt are divided into eight subgroups named after the main asteroids in each group. These groups are the Hungarias, Floras, Phocaea, Koronis, Eos, Themis, Cybeles and Hildas.

Although Hollywood often displays ships making close calls through asteroid belts, the trip is generally uneventful. A number of spacecraft have safely traveled through the asteroid belt without incident, including NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto.

Alan Stern

“Fortunately, the asteroid belt is so huge that, despite its large population of small bodies, the chance of running into one is almost vanishingly small — far less than one in a billion,” wrote New Horizons principle investigator Alan Stern. “If you want to come close enough to an asteroid to make detailed studies of it, you have to aim for one.”

Within in the asteroid belt are relatively empty regions known as Kirkwood gaps. These gaps correspond to orbital resonances with Jupiter. The gas giant’s gravitational pull keeps these regions far emptier than the rest of the belt. In other resonances, the asteroids can be more concentrated.


The three broad composition classes of asteroids are C-, S-, and M-types.

  • The C-type (chondrite) asteroids are most common. They probably consist of clay and silicate rocks, and are dark in appearance. They are among the most ancient objects in the solar system.
  • The S-types (“stony”) are made up of silicate materials and nickel-iron.
  • The M-types are metallic (nickel-iron). The asteroids’ compositional differences are related to how far from the Sun they formed. Some experienced high temperatures after they formed and partly melted, with iron sinking to the center and forcing basaltic (volcanic) lava to the surface.

Geological history of the planets

The orbits of asteroids can be changed by Jupiter’s massive gravity – and by occasional close encounters with Mars or other objects. These encounters can knock asteroids out of the main belt. And they hurl them into space in all directions across the orbits of the other planets. Stray asteroids and asteroid fragments have slammed into Earth. And the other planets in the past, playing a major role in altering the geological history of the planets and in the evolution of life on Earth.

Scientists continuously monitor Earth-crossing asteroids, whose paths intersect Earth’s orbit. And near-Earth asteroids that approach Earth’s orbital distance to within about 28 million miles (45 million kilometers) and may pose an impact danger. Radar is a valuable tool in detecting and monitoring potential impact hazards. By reflecting transmitted signals off objects, images and other information can be derived from the echoes. Scientists can learn a great deal about an asteroid’s orbit, rotation, size, shape, and metal concentration.

belt between the orbits of mars and jupiter
belt between the orbits of mars and jupiter

Asteroid Classifications

Main Asteroid Belt

The majority of known asteroids orbit within the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, generally with not very elongated orbits. The belt is estimated to contain between 1.1 and 1.9 million asteroids larger than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) in diameter, and millions of smaller ones.


These asteroids share an orbit with a larger planet, but do not collide with it. Because they gather around two special places in the orbit (called the L4 and L5 Lagrangian points). There, the gravitational pull from the Sun and the planet are balanced by a trojan’s tendency to otherwise fly out of orbit. The Jupiter trojans form the most significant population of trojan asteroids. It is thought that they are as numerous as the asteroids in the asteroid belt. There are Mars and Neptune trojans, and NASA announced the discovery of an Earth trojan in 2011.

Near-Earth Asteroids

These objects have orbits that pass close by that of Earth. Asteroids that actually cross Earth’s orbital path are known as Earth-crossers.

How Asteroids Get Their Names

The International Astronomical Union’s Committee on Small Body Nomenclature is not very strict when it comes to naming asteroids. As a result, out there orbiting the Sun we have a giant space rock named for Mr. Spock – a cat named for the character of “Star Trek” fame. There’s also a space rock named for the late rock musician Frank Zappa. There are more somber tributes, too. Such as the seven asteroids named for the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia killed in 2003.

Asteroids are also named for places and a variety of other things. (The IAU discourages naming asteroids for pets, so Mr. Spock stands alone). Asteroids are also given a number, for example (99942) Apophis. The Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics keeps a fairly current list of asteroid names.

belt between the orbits of mars and jupiter
belt between the orbits of mars and jupiter

Asteroids by the millions

While the graphic may make it seem like the asteroid belt is teeming with debris. If you lumped all the material together it would only create a body smaller than Earth’s moon.

The asteroid belt contains objects that vary wildly in size. It has one to two million asteroids more than half a mile (about a km) across. Plus, the asteroid belt contains untold millions of smaller ones, some probably no bigger than pebbles. In 1801, the astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi spotted the first asteroid to be discovered, which is also the biggest object in the asteroid belt. It is 1 Ceres, which measures some 587 miles (945 km). The International Astronomical Union has reclassified Ceres from an asteroid to a dwarf planet.

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