What is the Asteroid Belt?

In the 18th century, observations made of all the known planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) led astronomers to discern a pattern in their orbits. Eventually, this led to the Titius–Bode law, which predicted the amount of space between the planets. In accordance with this law, there appeared to be a discernible gap between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, and investigation into it led to a major discovery.

In addition to several larger objects being observed, astronomers began to notice countless smaller bodies also orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. This led to the creation of the term “asteroid”, as well as “Asteroid Belt” once it became clear just how many there were. Since that time, the term has entered common usage and become a mainstay of our astronomical models.

Discovery:

In 1800, hoping to resolve the issue created by the Titius-Bode Law, astronomer Baron Franz Xaver von Zach recruited 24 of his fellow astronomers into a club known as the “United Astronomical Society” (sometimes referred to the as “Stellar Police”). At the time, its ranks included famed astronomer William Herschel, who had discovered Uranus and its moons in the 1780’s.

Ironically, the first astronomer to make a discovery in this regions was Giuseppe Piazzi – the chair of astronomy at the University of Palermo – who had been asked to join the Society but had not yet received the invitation. On January 1st, 1801, Piazzi observed a tiny object in an orbit with the exact radius predicted by the Titius-Bode law.

Ceres (left, Dawn image) compared to Tethys (right, Cassini image) at comparative scale sizes. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA and NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Comparison by J. Major.)
Ceres (left, Dawn image) compared to Tethys (right, Cassini image) at comparative scale sizes. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA and NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Comparison by J. Major.

Initially he believed it to be a comet, but ongoing observations showed that it had no coma. This led Piazzi to consider that the object he had found – which he named “Ceres” after the Roman goddess of the harvest and patron of Sicily – could in fact be a planet. Fifteen months later, Heinrich Olbers ( a member of the Society) discovered a second object in the same region, which was later named 2 Pallas.

In appearance, these objects seemed indistinguishable from stars. Even under the highest telescope magnifications, they did not resolve into discs. However, their rapid movement was indicative of a shared orbit. Hence, William Herschel suggested that they be placed into a separate category called “asteroids” – Greek for “star-like”.

By 1807, further investigation revealed two new objects in the region, 3 Juno and 4 Vesta; and by 1845, 5 Astraea was found. Shortly thereafter, new objects were found at an accelerating rate, and by the early 1850s the term “asteroids” gradually came into common use. So too did the term “Asteroid Belt”, though it is unclear who coined that particular term. However, the term “Main Belt” is often used to distinguish it from the Kuiper Belt.

One hundred asteroids had been located by mid-1868, and in 1891 the introduction of astrophotography by Max Wolf accelerated the rate of discovery even further. A total of 1,000 asteroids were found by 1921, 10,000 by 1981, and 100,000 by 2000. Modern asteroid survey systems now use automated means to locate new minor planets in ever-increasing quantities.

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

Structure:

Despite common perceptions, the Asteroid Belt is mostly empty space, with the asteroids spread over a large volume of space. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of asteroids are currently known, and the total number ranges in the millions or more. Over 200 asteroids are known to be larger than 100 km in diameter, and a survey in the infrared wavelengths has shown that the asteroid belt has 0.7–1.7 million asteroids with a diameter of 1 km or more.

Located between Mars and Jupiter, the belt ranges from 2.2 to 3.2 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun and is 1 AU thick. It’s total mass is estimated to be 2.8×1021 to 3.2×1021 kilograms – which is equivalent to about 4% of the Moon’s mass. 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 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 describe the dimensions of an asteroid’s orbit based on its semi-major axis.

Zone I lies between the 4:1 resonance and 3:1 resonance Kirkwood gaps, which are 2.06 and 2.5 AU 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 from the Sun. Zone III extends from the outer edge of Zone II to the 2:1 resonance gap at 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 asteroids that have a radius of 2.06 AU from the Sun 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 Solar System.

The temperature of the Asteroid Belt varies with the distance from the Sun. 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 solar radiation and then to the stellar background.

Composition:

Most asteroids are composed of rock, but 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.

Vesta seen from the Earth-orbit based Hubble Space Telescope in 2007 (left) and up close with the Dawn spacecraft in 2011. Hubble Credit: NASA, ESA, and L. McFadden (University of Maryland). Dawn Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Photo Combination: Elizabeth Howell
Vesta seen from the Earth-orbit based Hubble Space Telescope in 2007 (left) and up close with the Dawn spacecraft in 2011. Hubble Credit: NASA, ESA, and L. McFadden (University of Maryland). Dawn Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Photo Combination: Elizabeth Howell

The 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 are carbon-rich, dominate the belt’s outer regions, and comprise over 75% of the visible asteroids. Their surface composition is similar to that of carbonaceous chondrite meteorites, and their spectra matches the primordial composition of the early Solar System.

S-type (silicate-rich) asteroids are more common toward the inner region of the belt, within 2.5 AU of the Sun. These are typically composed of silicates and some metals, but not a significant amount of carbonaceous compounds. This indicates that their materials have been modified significantly over time, most likely through melting and reformation.

M-type (metal-rich) asteroids form about 10% of the total population, and are composed of iron-nickel and some silicate compounds. Some are believed to have originated from the metallic cores of differentiated asteroids, which were then fragmented from collisions. Within the asteroid belt, the distribution of these types of asteroids peaks at a semi-major axis of about 2.7 AU from the Sun.

There’s also the mysterious and relatively rare V-type (or basaltic) asteroids. This group takes their name from the fact that until 2001, most basaltic bodies in the Asteroid Belt were believed to have originated from the asteroid Vesta. However, the discovery of basaltic asteroids with different chemical compositions suggests a different origin. Current theories of asteroid formation predict that the V-type asteroids should be more plentiful, but 99% of those predicted appear to be missing.

Families and Groups:

Approximately one-third of the asteroids in the asteroid belt are members of an asteroid family. These are based on similarities in orbital elements – such as semi-major axis, eccentricity, orbital inclinations, and similar spectral features, all of which indicate a common origin. Most likely, this is believed to have involve collisions between larger objects (with a mean radius of ~10 km) that then broke up into smaller bodies.

This artist's conception shows how families of asteroids are created. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist’s conception shows how families of asteroids are created. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Some of the most prominent families in the asteroid belt 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. Located within the inner region of the Belt, this family is made up of S-type asteroids and accounts for roughly 4-5% of all Belt objects.

The Eunomia family is another large grouping of S-type asteroids, which takes its name from the Greek goddess Eunomia (goddess of law and good order). It is the most prominent family in the intermediate asteroid belt, and accounts for 5% of all asteroids.

The Koronis family consists of 300 known asteroids which are thought to have been formed at least billion years ago by a collision. The largest known, 208 Lacrimosa, is about 41 km (25 mi) in diameter, while an additional 20 more have been found that are larger than 25 km in diameter.

The Eos (or Eoan) family is a prominent family of asteroids that orbit the Sun at distance of 2.96 – 3.03 AUs, and are believed to have formed from a collision 1-2 billion years ago. It consists of 4,400 known members that resemble the S-type asteroid category. However, examination of Eos and other family members in the infrared show some differences with the S-type, thus why they have their own category (K-type asteroids).

Asteroids we've seen up close show cratered surfaces similar to yet different from much of the cratering on comets. Credit: NASA
Asteroids we’ve seen up close show cratered surfaces similar to yet different from much of the cratering on comets. Credit: NASA

The Themis asteroid family is found in the outer portion of the asteroid belt, at a mean distance of 3.13 AU from the Sun.  This core group includes  the asteroid 24 Themis (for which it is named), and is one of the more populous asteroid families. It is made up of C-type asteroids with a composition believed to be similar to that of carbonaceous chondrites, and consists of a well-defined core of larger asteroids and a surrounding region of smaller ones.

The largest asteroid to be a true member of a 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.

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

Origin:

Originally, the Asteroid Belt was thought to be the remnants of a much larger planet that occupied the region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. This theory was originally suggested by Heinrich Olbders to William Herschel as a possible explanation for the existence of Ceres and Pallas. However, this hypothesis has since fallen out of favor for a number of reasons.

Artist's impression of the early Solar System, where collision between particles in an accretion disc led to the formation of planetesimals and eventually planets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s impression of the early Solar System, where collision between particles in an accretion disc led to the formation of planetesimals and eventually planets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

First, there is the amount of energy it would have required to destroy a planet, which would have been staggering. Second, there is the fact that the entire mass of the Belt is only 4% that of the Moon.  Third, the significant chemical differences between the asteroids do not point towards them having been once part of a single planet.

Today, the scientific consensus is that, rather than fragmenting from a progenitor planet, the asteroids are remnants from the early Solar System that never formed a planet at all. During the first few million years of the Solar System’s history, when gravitational accretion led to the formation of the planets, clumps of matter in an accretion disc coalesced to form planetesimals. These in turn came together to form planets.

However, within the region of the Asteroid Belt, planestesimals were too strongly perturbed by Jupiter’s gravity to form a planet. These objects would therefore continue to orbit the Sun as before, occasionally colliding and producing smaller fragments and dust.

During the early history of the Solar System, the asteroids also melted to some degree, allowing elements within them to be partially or completely differentiated by mass. However, this period would have been necessarily brief due to their relatively small size, and likely ended about 4.5 billion years ago, in the first tens of millions of years of the Solar System’s formation.

Though they are dated to the early history of the Solar System, the asteroids (as they are today) are not samples of its primordial self. They have undergone considerable evolution since their formation, including internal heating, surface melting from impacts, space weathering from radiation, and bombardment by micrometeorites. Hence, the Asteroid Belt today 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 the Earth. Primarily because of gravitational perturbations, most of the material was ejected from the belt a million years after its formation, leaving behind less than 0.1% of the original mass. Since then, the size distribution of the asteroid belt is believed to have remained relatively stable.

When the asteroid belt was first formed, the temperatures at a distance of 2.7 AU from the Sun formed a “snow line” below the freezing point of water. Essentially, planetesimals formed beyond this radius were able to accumulate ice, some of which may have provided a water source of Earth’s oceans (even more so than comets).

Exploration:

The asteroid belt is so thinly populated that several unmanned spacecraft have been able to move through it; either as part of a long-range mission to the outer Solar System, or (in recent years) as a mission to study larger Asteroid Belt objects. 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.

Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft arriving at Vesta. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s concept of the Dawn spacecraft arriving at Vesta. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The first spacecraft to make a journey through the asteroid belt was the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, which entered the region on July 16th, 1972. As part of a mission to Jupiter, the craft successfully navigated through the Belt and conducted a flybys of Jupiter (which culminated in December of 1973) before becoming the first spacecraft to achieve escape velocity from the Solar System.

At the time, there were concerns that the debris would pose a hazard to the Pioneer 10 space probe. But since that mission, 11 additional spacecraft passed through the Asteroid Belt without incident. These included Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and 2, Ulysses, Galileo, NEAR, Cassini, Stardust, New Horizons, the ESA’s Rosetta, and most recently, the Dawn spacecraft.

For the most part, these missions were part of missions to the outer Solar System, where opportunities to photograph and study asteroids were brief. Only the Dawn, NEAR and JAXA’s Hayabusa missions have studied asteroids for a protracted period in orbit and at the surface. Dawn explored Vesta from July 2011 to September 2012, and is currently orbiting Ceres (and sending back many interesting pictures of its surface features).

And someday, if all goes well, humanity might even be in a position to begin mining the asteroid belt for resources – such as precious metals, minerals, and volatiles. These resources could mined be from an asteroid and then used in space of in-situ utilization (i.e. turning them into construction materials and rocket propellant), or brought back to Earth.

It is even possible that humanity might one day colonize larger asteroids and establish outposts throughout the Belt. In the meantime, there’s still plenty of exploring left to do, and quite possibly millions more objects out there to study.

We have written many articles about the asteroid belt for Universe Today. Here’s Where Do Asteroids Come From?, Why the Asteroid Belt Doesn’t Threaten Spacecraft, and Why isn’t the Asteroid Belt a Planet?.

Also, be sure to learn which is the Largest Asteroid in the Solar System, and about the asteroid named after Leonard Nimoy. And here’s 10 Interesting Facts about Asteroids.

We also have many interesting articles about the Dawn spacecraft’s mission to Vesta and Ceres, and asteroid mining.

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.

References:
NASA: The Asteroid Belt
NASA: Asteroid

What is Lunar Regolith?

When you’re walking around on soft ground, do you notice how your feet leave impressions? Perhaps you’ve tracked some of the looser earth in your yard into the house on occasion? If you were to pick up some of these traces – what we refer to as dirt or soil – and examine them beneath a microscope, what would you see?

Essentially, you would be seeing the components of what is known as regolith, which is a collection of particles of dust, soil, broken rock, and other materials found here on Earth. But interestingly enough, this same basic material can be found in other terrestrial environments as well – including the Moon, Mars, other planets, and even asteroids.

Definition:

The term regolith refers to any layer of material covering solid rock, which can come in the form of dust, soil or broken rock. The word is derived from the combination of two Greek words – rhegos (which means “blanket”) and lithos (which means “rock).

Earth:

On Earth, regolith takes the form of dirt, soil, sand, and other components that are formed as a result of natural weathering and biological processes. Due to a combination of erosion, alluvial deposits (i.e. moving water deposing sand), volcanic eruptions, or tectonic activity, the material is slowly ground down and laid out over solid bedrock.

central Yilgarn Craton, Western Australia.
Picture of Mt Magnet in the Central Yilgarn Craton in Western Australia, which dates to the Precambrian Era. Credit: geomorphologie.revues.org

It can be made up of clays, silicates, various minerals, groundwater, and organic molecules. Regolith on Earth can vary from being essentially absent to being hundreds of meters thick. Its can also be very young (in the form of ash, alluvium, or lava rock that was just deposited) to hundreds of millions of years old (regolith dating to the Precambrian age occurs in parts of Australia).

On Earth, the presence of regolith is one of the important factors for most life, since few plants can grow on or within solid rock and animals would be unable to burrow or build shelter without loose material. Regolith is also important for human beings since it has been used since the dawn of civilization (in the form of mud bricks, concrete and ceramics) to build houses, roads, and other civil works.

The difference in terminology between “soil” (aka. dirt, mud, etc.) and “sand” is the presence of organic materials. In the former, it exists in abundance, and is what separates regolith on Earth from most other terrestrial environments in our Solar System.

The Moon:

The surface of the Moon is covered with a fine powdery material that scientists refer to it as “lunar regolith”. Nearly the entire lunar surface is covered with regolith, and bedrock is only visible on the walls of very steep craters.

Earth viewed from the Moon by the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Credit: NASA
Earth viewed from the Moon by the Apollo 11 spacecraft, across a sea of lunar soil. Credit: NASA

The Moon regolith was formed over billions of years by constant meteorite impacts on the surface of the Moon. Scientists estimate that the lunar regolith extends down 4-5 meters in some places, and even as deep as 15 meters in the older highland areas.

When the plans were put together for the Apollo missions, some scientists were concerned that the lunar regolith would be too light and powdery to support the weight of the lunar lander. Instead of landing on the surface, they were worried that the lander would just sink down into it like a snowbank.

However, landings performed by robotic Surveyor spacecraft showed that the lunar soil was firm enough to support a spacecraft, and astronauts later explained that the surface of the Moon felt very firm beneath their feet. During the Apollo landings, the astronauts often found it necessary to use a hammer to drive a core sampling tool into it.

Once astronauts reached the surface, they reported that the fine moon dust stuck to their spacesuits and then dusted the inside of the lunar lander. The astronauts also claimed that it got into their eyes, making them red; and worse, even got into their lungs, giving them coughs. Lunar dust is very abrasive, and has been noted for its ability to wear down spacesuits and electronics.

Alan Bean Takes Lunar Soil Sample
Alan Bean takes a sample of lunar regolith during the Apollo 12 mission. Credit: NASA

The reason for this is because lunar regolith is sharp and jagged. This is due to the fact that the Moon has no atmosphere or flowing water on it, and hence no natural weathering process. When the micro-meteoroids slammed into the surface and created all the particles, there was no process for wearing down its sharp edges.

The term lunar soil is often used interchangeably with “lunar regolith”, but some have argued that the term “soil” is not correct because it is defined as having organic content. However, standard usage among lunar scientists tends to ignore that distinction. “Lunar dust” is also used, but mainly to refer to even finer materials than lunar soil.

As NASA is working on plans to send humans back to the Moon in the coming years, researchers are working to learn the best ways to work with the lunar regolith. Future colonists could mine minerals, water, and even oxygen out of the lunar soil, and use it to manufacture bases with as well.

Mars:

Landers and rovers that have been sent to Mars by NASA, the Russians and the ESA have returned many interesting photographs, showing a landscape that is covered with vast expanses of sand and dust, as well as rocks and boulders.

A successful scoop of Martian regolith (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute)
A successful scoop of Martian regolith performed by NASA’s Phoenix lander. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute

Compared to lunar regolith, Mars dust is very fine and enough remains suspended in the atmosphere to give the sky a reddish hue. The dust is occasionally picked up in vast planet-wide dust storms, which are quite slow due to the very low density of the atmosphere.

The reason why Martian regolith is so much finer than that found on the Moon is attributed to the flowing water and river valleys that once covered its surface. Mars researchers are currently studying whether or not martian regolith is still being shaped in the present epoch as well.

It is believed that large quantities of water and carbon dioxide ices remain frozen within the regolith, which would be of use if and when manned missions (and even colonization efforts) take place in the coming decades.

Mars moon of Deimos is also covered by a layer of regolith that is estimated to be 50 meters (160 feet) thick. Images provided by the Viking 2 orbiter confirmed its presence from a height of 30 km (19 miles) above the moon’s surface.

Asteroids and Outer Solar System:

The only other planet in our Solar System that is known to have regolith is Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The surface is known for its extensive fields of dunes, though the precise origin of them are not known. Some scientists have suggested that they may be small fragments of water ice eroded by Titan’s liquid methane, or possibly particulate organic matter that formed in Titan’s atmosphere and rained down on the surface.

Another possibility is that a series of powerful wind reversals, which occur twice during a single Saturn year (30 Earth years), are responsible for forming these dunes, which measure several hundred meters high and stretch across hundreds of kilometers.  Currently, Earth scientists are still not certain what Titan’s regolith is composed of.

Data returned by the Huygens Probe’s penetrometer indicated that the surface may be clay-like, but long-term analysis of the data has suggested that it may be composed of sand-like ice grains.  The images taken by the probe upon landing on the moon’s surface show a flat plain covered in rounded pebbles, which may be made of water ice, and suggest the action of moving fluids on them.

Asteroids have been observed to have regolith on their surfaces as well. These are the result of meteoriod impacts that have taken place over the course of millions of years, pulverizing their surfaces and creating dust and tiny particles that are carried within the craters.

False color picture of Eros' 5.3-kilometer (3.3-mile) surface crater, showing regolith inside. Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL
False color picture taken by NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker camera of Eros’ 5.3-kilometer (3.3-mile) surface crater, showing the presence of regolith inside. Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL

NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft produced evidence of regolith on the surface of the asteroid 433 Eros, which remains the best images of asteroid regolith to date. Additional evidence has been provided by JAXA’s Hayabusa mission, which returned clear images of regolith on an asteroid that was thought to be too small to hold onto it.

Images provided by the Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) cameras on board the Rosetta Spacecraft confirmed that the asteroid 21 Lutetia has a layer of regolith near its north pole, which was seen to flow in major landslides associated with variations in the asteriod’s albedo.

To break it down succinctly, wherever there is rock, there is likely to be regolith. Whether it is the product of wind or flowing water, or the presence of meteors impacting the surface, good old fashioned “dirt” can be found just about anywhere in our Solar System; and most likely, in the universe beyond…

We’ve done several articles about the Moon’s regolith here on Universe Today. Here’s a way astronauts might be able to extract water from lunar regolith with simple kitchen appliances, and an article about NASA’s search for a lunar digger.

Want to buy some lunar regolith simulant? Here’s a site that lets you buy it. Do you want to be a Moon miner? There’s lots of good metal in that lunar regolith.

You can listen to a very interesting podcast about the formation of the Moon from Astronomy Cast, Episode 17: Where Did the Moon Come From?

Reference:
NASA

Help Astronomers Measure the Solar System!

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As the bright Mars-crossing asteroid 433 Eros makes its closest approach to Earth since 1975, astronomers around the globe are taking the opportunity to measure its position in the sky, thereby fine-tuning our working knowledge of distances in the solar system. Using the optical principle of parallax, whereby different viewpoints of the same object show slightly shifted positions relative to background objects, skywatchers in different parts of the world can observe Eros over the next few nights and share their images online.

The endeavor is called the Eros Parallax Project, and you can participate too!

433 Eros' path from jan. 30 - Feb. 1, 2012. (transitofvenus.nl)

Discovered in 1898, Eros was the largest near-Earth asteroid yet identified. Its close and relatively bright oppositions were calculated by astronomers of the day and used, along with solar transits by Venus (one of which, if you haven’t heard, will also occur this year on June 5!) to calculate distances in the inner solar system.

Having both events take place within the same year offers today’s astronomers an unparalleled opportunity to obtain observational measurements.

Through the efforts of the Astronomers Without Borders organization, along with Steven van Roode and Michael Richmond from the Transit of Venus project, anyone with moderate astrophotography experience can participate in the observation of Eros and share their photos via free online software.

Using the data gathered by individual participants positioned around the world, each with their own specific viewpoints, astronomers will be able to precisely measure the distance to Eros.

The more accurately that distance is known, the more accurately the distance from Earth to the Sun can be calculated – via the orbital mechanics of Kepler’s third law.

The tumbling motion of elongated 33-km-long Eros creates a changing brightness. (via transitofvenus.nl)

The last time such a bright pass of Eros occurred was in January of 1931. Observations of the asteroid made at that time allowed astronomers to calculate a solar parallax of 8″ .790, the most accurate up to that time and the most accurate until 1968, when data acquired by radar measurements gave more detailed measurements.

In many ways the 2012 close approach by Eros – astronomically close, but still a very safe 16.6 million miles (26.7 million km) away – will allow for a re-eneactment of the 1931 event… with the exception that this time amateur skywatchers will also contribute data, instantly, from all over the world!

One has to wonder…when Eros comes this close again in 2056, what sort of technology will we use to watch it then…

Find out more about the Eros Parallax Project and how to participate here.

And be sure to check out the article about the project on Astronomers Without Borders as well.

Asteroid To Make Closest Approach Since 1975

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On Tuesday, January 31, asteroid 433 Eros will come closer to Earth than it has in 37 years, traveling across the night sky in the constellations Leo, Sextans and Hydra. At its closest pass of 16.6 million miles (26.7 million km) the relatively bright 21-mile (34-km) -wide asteroid will be visible with even modest backyard telescopes, approaching magnitude 8, possibly even 7. It hasn’t come this close since 1975, and won’t do so again until 2056!

433 Eros is an S-type asteroid, signifying a composition of magnesium silicates and iron. S-types make up about 17 percent of known asteroids and are some of the brightest, with albedos (reflectivity) in the range of 0.10 – 0.22. S-type asteroids are most common in the inner asteroid belt and, as in the case of Eros, can even pass within the orbit of Mars.

Occasionally Eros’ orbit brings it close enough to Earth that it can be spotted with amateur telescopes. 2012 will be one of those times.

Eros was discovered on August 13, 1898, by astronomers Carl Gustav Witt in Berlin and Auguste Charlois in Nice. When Eros’ orbit was calculated it was seen to be an elongated oval that brought it within the orbit of Mars. This allowed for good observations of the bright asteroid, and eventually led to more accurate estimates of the distance from Earth to the Sun.

In February 2000 NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft approached Eros, established orbit and made a soft landing on its surface, the first mission ever to do so. While in orbit NEAR took over 160,000 images of Eros’ surface, identifying over 100,000 craters, a million house-sized boulders (give or take a few) and helped researchers conclude that the cashew-shaped Eros is a solid object rather than a “rubble pile” held together by gravity.

View NEAR images of Eros’ surface.

Studying pristine objects like Eros gives insight into the earliest days of our solar system, and also allows scientists to better understand asteroid compositions… which is invaluable information when deciding how best to avoid any potential future impacts.

Orbit of 433 Eros for Jan. 31, 2012

Although Eros will be making a “close” approach to Earth on Jan. 31/Feb. 1, there is no danger of a collision. It will still remain at a very respectable distance of about 16.6 million miles (26.7 million km), or 0.178 AU. This is over 80 times the distance of the much smaller 2005 YU55, which safely passed within a lunar orbit radius on November 8, 2011.

If you do want to try viewing 433 Eros as it passes, you can find a diagram charting its path from Sky and Telescope here. According to the Sydney Observatory’s website “the coordinates on 31 January (from the BAA 2012 Handbook) are 10 hours 33 minutes 19.0 seconds RA and -4° 48’ 23” declination. On 10 February the RA is 10 hours 20 minutes 27.6 seconds and the declination is -14° 38’ 49 seconds.”

Also there’s an updated chart on Heavens Above showing Eros’ current position.

Eros should remain visible up until Feb. 10.

Thanks to Skyscrapers, Inc., for a report on 433 Eros by Glenn Chaple. Skyscrapers, Inc. is an amateur astronomy society in Rhode Island that operates the Seagrave Observatory, whose centerpiece is a beautiful 8 1/4″ Alvan Clark telescope built in 1878. I saw Halley’s Comet through that telescope in 1986 and have been hooked on astronomy ever since.