Solar System

Solar System

Asteroid belt

Asteroids except for the largest, Ceres, are classified as small Solar System bodies and are composed mainly of refractory rocky and metallic minerals, with some ice. They range from a few metres to hundreds of kilometres in size. Asteroids smaller than one meter are usually called meteoroids and micrometeoroids (grain-sized), depending on different, somewhat arbitrary definitions.

The asteroid belt occupies the orbit between Mars and Jupiter, between 2.3 and 3.3 AU from the Sun. It is thought to be remnants from the Solar System’s formation that failed to coalesce because of the gravitational interference of Jupiter. The asteroid belt contains tens of thousands, possibly millions, of objects over one kilometre in diameter. Despite this, the total mass of the asteroid belt is unlikely to be more than a thousandth of that of Earth. The asteroid belt is very sparsely populated; spacecraft routinely pass through without incident.


Ceres (2.77 AU) is the largest asteroid, a protoplanet, and a dwarf planet. It has a diameter of slightly under 1000 km, and a mass large enough for its own gravity to pull it into a spherical shape. Ceres was considered a planet when it was discovered in 1801, and was reclassified to asteroid in the 1850s as further observations revealed additional asteroids. It was classified as a dwarf planet in 2006 when the definition of a planet was created.

Asteroid groups

Asteroids in the asteroid belt are divided into asteroid groups and families based on their orbital characteristics. Asteroid moons are asteroids that orbit larger asteroids. They are not as clearly distinguished as planetary moons, sometimes being almost as large as their partners. The asteroid belt also contains main-belt comets, which may have been the source of Earth’s water.

Jupiter trojans are located in either of Jupiter’s L4 or L5 points (gravitationally stable regions leading and trailing a planet in its orbit); the term trojan is also used for small bodies in any other planetary or satellite Lagrange point. Hilda asteroids are in a 2:3 resonance with Jupiter; that is, they go around the Sun three times for every two Jupiter orbits.

The inner Solar System also contains near-Earth asteroids, many of which cross the orbits of the inner planets. Some of them are potentially hazardous objects.

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