How Far is the Asteroid Belt from Earth?

Artist's impression of the asteroid belt. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the 18th century, observations made of all the known planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) led astronomers to the realization that there was a pattern in their orbits. Eventually, this led to the Titius–Bode law, which predicted the amount of space that naturally existed between each celestial body that orbited our Sun. In accordance with this law, astronomers noted that there appeared to be a discernible gap between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Investigations into this gap eventually resulted in astronomers observing several bodies of various size. This led to the creation of the term “asteroid” (Greek for ‘star-like’ or ‘star-shaped’), as well as “Asteroid Belt”, once it became clear just how many there were. Through various methods, astronomers have since confirmed the existence of several million objects between the orbit of Mars and Jupiter. They have also determined, with a certain degree of accuracy, how far it is from our planet.

Structure and Composition:

The Asteroid Belt consists of several large bodies, coupled with millions of smaller size. The larger bodies, such as Ceres, Vesta, Pallas, and Hygiea, account for half of the belt’s total mass, with almost one-third accounted for by Ceres alone. Beyond that, over 200 asteroids that are larger than 100 km in diameter, and 0.7–1.7 million asteroids with a diameter of 1 km or more.

The asteroids of the inner Solar System and Jupiter: The donut-shaped asteroid belt is located between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
The asteroids of the inner Solar System and Jupiter: The donut-shaped asteroid belt is located between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

It total, the Asteroid Belt’s mass is estimated to be 2.8×1021 to 3.2×1021 kilograms – which is equivalent to about 4% of the Moon’s mass. While most asteroids are composed of rock, a small portion of them contain metals such as iron and nickel. The remaining asteroids are made up of a mix of these, along with carbon-rich materials. Some of the more distant asteroids tend to contain more ices and volatiles, which includes water ice.

Despite the impressive number of objects contained within the belt, the Main Belt’s asteroids are also spread over a very large volume of space. As a result, the average distance between objects is roughly 965,600 km (600,000 miles), meaning that the Main Belt consists largely of empty space. In fact, due to the low density of materials within the Belt, the odds of a probe running into an asteroid are now estimated at less than one in a billion.

The main (or core) population of the asteroid belt is sometimes divided into three zones, which are based on what is known as “Kirkwood gaps”. Named after Daniel Kirkwood, who announced in 1866 the discovery of gaps in the distance of asteroids, these gaps are similar to what is seen with Saturn’s and other gas giants’ systems of rings.

Orbit Around the Sun:

Located between Mars and Jupiter, the belt ranges in distance between 2.2 and 3.2 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun – 329 million to 478.7 million km (204.43 million to 297.45 million mi). It is also an estimated 1 AU thick (149.6 million km, or 93 million mi), meaning that it occupies the same amount of distance as what lies between the Earth to the Sun.

The distance of an asteroid from the Sun (its semi-major axis) depends upon its distribution into one of three different zones based on the Belt’s “Kirkwood Gaps”. Zone I lies between the 4:1 resonance and 3:1 resonance Kirkwood gaps, which are roughly 2.06 and 2.5 AUs (3 to 3.74 billion km; 1.86 to 2.3 billion mi) from the Sun, respectively.

Zone II continues from the end of Zone I out to the 5:2 resonance gap, which is 2.82 AU (4.22 billion km; 2.6 mi) from the Sun. Zone III, the outermost section of the Belt, extends from the outer edge of Zone II to the 2:1 resonance gap, located some 3.28 AU (4.9 billion km; 3 billion mi) from the Sun.

Distance from Earth:

The distance between the Asteroid Belt and Earth varies considerably depending on where we measure to. Based on its average distance from the Sun, the distance between Earth and the closest edge of the Belt can be said to be between 1.2 to 2.2 AUs, or 179.5 and 329 million km (111.5 and 204.43 million mi). But of course, at any given time, part of the Asteroid Belt will be on the opposite side of the Sun relative to us as well.

From this vantage point, the distance between Earth and the Asteroid Belt ranges from 3.2 and 4.2 AU – 478.7 to 628.3 million km (297.45 to 390.4 million mi). To put that in perspective, the distance between Earth and the Asteroid Belt ranges from being slightly more than the distance between the Earth and the Sun (1 AU), to being the same as the distance between Earth and Jupiter (4.2 AU) when they are at their closest.

Naturally, any exploration or other kind of mission launched from Earth is going to take the shortest route, unless it is aiming for a specific asteroid. And even then, mission planners will time the launch to ensure that we are closest to the destination. Hence, we can safely use the estimates of 1.2 – 2.2 AU to gauge the distance between us and the Main Belt.

Even so, at its closest, getting to the Asteroid Belt would involve a bit of a hike! In short, it is approximately 179.5 million km (or 111.5 million mi) distant from us at any given time. As such, knowing just how much time and energy it would take to get their and back is going to come in handy if and when we begin mounting crewed missions to the Belt, not to mention the prospect of asteroid mining!

We have written many interesting articles on the Asteroid  Belt here at Universe Today. Here’s What is the Asteroid Belt?, Where Do Asteroids Come From?, Why the Asteroid Belt Doesn’t Threaten Spacecraft, Why isn’t the Asteroid Belt a Planet?, and 10 Interesting Facts about Asteroids.

To learn more, check out NASA’s Lunar and Planetary Science Page on asteroids, and the Hubblesite’s News Releases about Asteroids.

Astronomy Cast also some interesting episodes about asteroids, like Episode 55: The Asteroid Belt and Episode 29: Asteroids Make Bad Neighbors.


It’s Not Just The Astronauts That Are Getting Older

Representing what may be the first long term lunar environmental impact study, recent laser ranging data from the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico suggests the Lunar Ranging Retro Reflectors (LRRRs) left on the Moon by Apollo missions 11, 14 and 15 are beginning to shows signs of age.

Apache Point Observatory’s Lunar Laser-ranging Operation (the acronym says it all) has been collecting ranging data from the LRRRs since 2006, using a 3.5 metre telescope and a 532 nm laser.

A typical APOLLO observing session involves shooting the laser at the largest of the LRRRs (Apollo 15’s) over a ‘run’ of four to eight minutes. Each shot sends about 1017 photons to the Moon, from which only one returned photon per shot may be detected. This is why the laser is shot thousands of times at a 20 Hz repetition rate during each run.

If the return signal from the Apollo 15 LRRR is good, the laser is then directed to fire at the Apollo 11 and 14 reflectors. The laser can even be directed to the Russian Lunokhod 2 reflector, landed on the Moon in 1973, although this reflector does not return a reliable signal if it is in sunlight, probably because heating affects the reflectors’ refractive index and distorts the return signal.

Lunokhod 2 (moon walker in Russian), an 840 kg rover that landed on the Moon on January 15, 1973 and undertook scientific investigations on the lunar surface until May 1973.

The Apollo LRRRs were designed to remain isothermal, even in direct sunlight, to avoid the problem apparently suffered by Lunokhod 2. But a review of current and historical data has revealed a noticeable decline in their performance at each Full Moon. Since the reflectors are directed straight at Earth, they experience the most direct sunlight at a Full Moon.

Recent Apache Point Observatory data has been compared to historical data collected by earlier observatories involved in lunar laser ranging. For the period 1973 to 1976, no Full Moon deficit was apparent in data records, but it began to emerge clearly in a 1979 to 1984 data set. The research team estimate that return signal efficiency at Full Moon has degraded by a factor of 15 over the approximately forty years since the Apollo reflectors were placed on the Moon.

While heating effects may play a part in the performance degradation of the LRRRs, lunar dust is suggested to be the more likely candidate, as this would be consistent with the very gradual performance degradation – and where the most substantial performance loss occurs right on Full Moon. These findings may require careful consideration when designing future optical devices that are intended to remain on the lunar surface for long periods.

On the bright side – all the reflectors, including Lunokhod 2’s, are still functioning on some level. Hopefully, decades before their slow and steady decline progresses to complete failure, even more efficient replacement devices will be landed on the lunar surface – perhaps carefully positioned by a gloved hand or otherwise by robotic means.

This article was developed from this very readable scientific paper.