Much has been learned about Saturn’s system of moons in recent decades, thanks to the Voyager missions and the more recent surveys conducted by the Cassini spaceprobe. Between its estimated 150 moons and moonlets (only 53 of which have been identified and named) there is no shortage of scientific curiosities, and enough mysteries to keep astronomers here on Earth busy for decades.
Consider Mimas, which is often referred to as Saturn’s “Death Star Moon” on a count of its unusual appearance. Much like Saturn’s moons Tethys and Rhea, Mimas’ peculiar characteristics represents something of a mystery. Not only is it almost entirely composed ice, it’s coloration and surface features reveal a great deal about the history of the Saturnian (aka. Cronian) system. On top of that, it may even house an interior, liquid-water ocean.
Mimas takes its name from one of the Titans of Greek mythology, who were the sons and daughters of Cronus (the Greek equivalent to Jupiter). Mimas was an offspring of Gaia, born from the blood of the castrated Uranus, who eventually died during the struggle with the Olympian Gods for control of the universe.
Size, Mass and Orbit:
With a mean radius of 198.2 ± 0.4 km and a mass of about 3.75 ×1019 kg, Mimas is equivalent in size to 0.0311 Earths and 0.0000063 times as massive. Orbiting Saturn at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 185,539 km, it is the innermost of Saturn’s larger moons, and the 8th moon orbiting Saturn. It’s orbit also has a minor eccentricity of 0.0196, ranging from 181,902 km at periapsis and 189,176 km at apoapsis.
With an estimated orbital velocity of 14.28 km/s, Mimas takes 0.942 days to complete a single orbit of Saturn. Like many of Saturn’s moons. Mimas rotation period is synchronous to its orbital period, which means it keeps one face constantly pointing towards the planet. Mimas is also in a 2:1 mean-motion resonance with the larger moon Tethys, and in a 2:3 resonance with the outer F Ring shepherd moonlet, Pandora.
Composition and Surface Features:
Mimas’ mean density of 1.1479 ± 0.007 g/cm³ is just slightly higher than that of water (1 g/cm³), which means that Mimas is mostly composed of water ice, with just a small amount of silicate rock. In this respect, Mimas is much like Tethys, Rhea, and Dione – moon’s of Saturn that are primarily composed of water ice.
Due to the tidal forces acting on it, Mimas is noticeably prolate – i.e. its longest axis is about 10% longer than the shortest, giving it its egg-shaped appearance. In fact, with a diameter of 396 km (246 mi), Mimas is just barely large and massive enough to achieve hydrostatic equilibrium (i.e. to become rounded in shape under the force of its own gravitation). Mimas is the smallest known astronomical body to have achieved this.
Three types of geological features are officially recognized on Mimas: craters, chasmata (chasms) and catenae (crater chains). Of these, craters are the most common, and it is believed that many of them have existed since the beginning of the Solar System. Mimas surface is saturated with craters, with every part of the surface showing visible depressions, and newer impacts overwriting older ones.
Mimas’ most distinctive feature is the giant impact crater Herschel, named in honor of William Herschel (the discoverer of Uranus, its moons Oberon, and Titania, and the Cronian moons Enceladus and Mimas). This large crater gives Mimas the appearance of the “Death Star” from Star Wars. At 130 km (81 mi) in diameter, Herschel’s is almost a third of Mimas’ own diameter.
Its walls are approximately 5 km (3.1 mi) high, parts of its floor measure 10 km (6.2 mi) deep, and its central peak rises 6 km (3.7 mi) above the crater floor. If there were a crater of an equivalent scale on Earth, it would be over 4,000 km (2,500 mi) in diameter, which would make it wider than the continent of Australia.
The impact that made this crater must have nearly shattered Mimas, and is believed to have created the fractures on the opposite side of the moon by sending shock waves through Mimas’s body. In this respect, Mimas’ surface closely resembles that of Tethys, with its massive Odysseus crater on its western hemisphere and the concentric Ithaca chasma, which is believed to have formed as a result of the impact that created Odysseus.
Mimas’ surface is also saturated with smaller impact craters, but no others are anywhere near the size of Herschel. The cratering is also not uniform, with most of the surface being covered with craters larger than 40 km (25 mi) in diameter. However, in the south polar region, there are generally no craters larger than 20 km (12 mi) in diameter.
Data obtained in 2014 from the Cassini spacecraft has also led to speculation about a possible interior ocean. Due to the planet’s libration (oscillation in its orbit), scientists believe that the planet’s interior is not uniform, which could be the result of a rocky interior or an interior ocean at the core-mantle boundary. This ocean would likely be maintained thanks to tidal flexing caused by Mimas’ orbital resonances with Tethys and Pandora.
A number of features in Saturn’s rings are also related to resonances with Mimas. Mimas is responsible for clearing the material from the Cassini Division, which is the gap between Saturn’s two widest rings – the A Ring and B Ring. The repeated pulls by Mimas on the Cassini Division particles, always in the same direction, forces them into new orbits outside the gap.
Particles in the Huygens Gap at the inner edge of the Cassini division are in a 2:1 resonance with Mimas. In other words, they orbit Saturn twice for each orbit competed by Mimas. The boundary between the C and B ring is meanwhile in a 3:1 resonance with Mimas; and recently, the G Ring was found to be in a 7:6 co-rotation eccentricity resonance with Mimas.
The first mission to study Mimas up close was Pioneer 11, which flew by Saturn in 1979 and made its closest approach on Sept. 1st, 1979, at a distance of 104,263 km. The Voyager 1 and 2 missions both flew by Mimas in 1980 and 1981, respectively, and snapped pictures of Saturn’s atmosphere, its rings, its system of moons. Images taken by Voyager 1 probe were the first ever of the Herschel crater.
Mimas has been imaged several times by the Cassini orbiter, which entered into orbit around Saturn in 2004. A close flyby occurred on February 13, 2010, when Cassini passed Mimas at a distance of 9,500 km (5,900 mi). In addition to providing multiple images of Mimas’ cratered surface, it also took measurements of Mimas’ orbit, which led to speculation about a possible interior ocean.
The Saturn system is truly a wonder. So many moons, so many mysteries, and so many chances to learn about the formation of the Solar System and how it came to be. One can only hope that future missions are able to probe some of the deeper ones, like what might be lurking beneath Mimas’ icy, imposing “Death Star” surface!
We’ve written many great articles about Mimas and Saturn’s moons here at Universe Today. Here’s one about the Herschel Crater, one about the first detailed look Cassini made, and one about it’s “Death Star” appearance.
The Cronian system (i.e. Saturn and its system of rings and moons) is breathtaking to behold and intriguing to study. Besides its vast and beautiful ring system, it also has the second-most satellites of any planet in the Solar System. In fact, Saturn has an estimated 150 moons and moonlets – and only 53 of them have been officially named – which makes it second only to Jupiter.
For the most part, these moons are small, icy bodies that are believed to house interior oceans. And in all cases, particularly Rhea, their interesting appearances and compositions make them a prime target for scientific research. In addition to being able to tell us much about the Cronian system and its formation, moons like Rhea can also tell us much about the history of our Solar System.
Discovery and Naming:
Rhea was discovered by Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini on December 23rd, 1672. Together with the moons of Iapetus, Tethys and Dione, which he discovered between 1671 and 1672, he named them all Sidera Lodoicea (“the stars of Louis”) in honor of his patron, King Louis XIV of France. However, these names were not widely recognized outside of France.
With a mean radius of 763.8±1.0 km and a mass of 2.3065 ×1021 kg, Rhea is equivalent in size to 0.1199 Earths (and 0.44 Moons), and about 0.00039 times as massive (or 0.03139 Moons). It orbits Saturn at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 527,108 km, which places it outside the orbits of Dione and Tethys, and has a nearly circular orbit with a very minor eccentricity (0.001).
With an orbital velocity of about 30,541 km/h, Rhea takes approximately 4.518 days to complete a single orbit of its parent planet. Like many of Saturn’s moons, its rotational period is synchronous with its orbit, meaning that the same face is always pointed towards it.
Composition and Surface Features:
With a mean density of about 1.236 g/cm³, Rhea is estimated to be composed of 75% water ice (with a density of roughly 0.93 g/cm³) and 25% of silicate rock (with a density of around 3.25 g/cm³). This low density means that although Rhea is the ninth-largest moon in the Solar System, it is also the tenth-most massive.
In terms of its interior, Rhea was originally suspected of being differentiated between a rocky core and an icy mantle. However, more recent measurements would seem to indicate that Rhea is either only partly differentiated, or has a homogeneous interior – likely consisting of both silicate rock and ice together (similar to Jupiter’s moon Callisto).
Models of Rhea’s interior also suggest that it may have an internal liquid-water ocean, similar to Enceladus and Titan. This liquid-water ocean, should it exist, would likely be located at the core-mantle boundary, and would be sustained by the heating caused by from decay of radioactive elements in its core.
Rhea’s surface features resemble those of Dione, with dissimilar appearances existing between their leading and trailing hemispheres – which suggests that the two moons have similar compositions and histories. Images taken of the surface have led astronomers to divide it into two regions – the heavily cratered and bright terrain, where craters are larger than 40 km (25 miles) in diameter; and the polar and equatorial regions where craters are noticeably smaller.
Another difference between Rhea’s leading and trailing hemisphere is their coloration. The leading hemisphere is heavily cratered and uniformly bright while the trailing hemisphere has networks of bright swaths on a dark background and few visible craters. It had been thought that these bright areas (aka. wispy terrain) might be material ejected from ice volcanoes early in Rhea’s history when its interior was still liquid.
However, observations of Dione, which has an even darker trailing hemisphere and similar but more prominent bright streaks, has cast this into doubt. It is now believed that the wispy terrain are tectonically-formed ice cliffs (chasmata) which resulted from extensive fracturing of the moon’s surface. Rhea also has a very faint “line” of material at its equator which was thought to be deposited by material deorbiting from its rings (see below).
Rhea has two particularly large impact basins, both of which are situated on Rhea’s anti-Cronian side (aka. the side facing away from Saturn). These are known as Tirawa and Mamaldi basins, which measure roughly 360 and 500 km (223.69 and 310.68 mi) across. The more northerly and less degraded basin of Tirawa overlaps Mamaldi – which lies to its southwest – and is roughly comparable to the Odysseus crater on Tethys (which gives it its “Death-Star” appearance).
Rhea has a tenuous atmosphere (exosphere) which consists of oxygen and carbon dioxide, which exists in a 5:2 ratio. The surface density of the exosphere is from 105 to 106 molecules per cubic centimeter, depending on local temperature. Surface temperatures on Rhea average 99 K (-174 °C/-281.2 °F) in direct sunlight, and between 73 K (-200 °C/-328 °F) and 53 K (-220 °C/-364 °F) when sunlight is absent.
The oxygen in the atmosphere is created by the interaction of surface water ice and ions supplied from Saturn’s magnetosphere (aka. radiolysis). These ions cause the water ice to break down into oxygen gas (O²) and elemental hydrogen (H), the former of which is retained while the latter escapes into space. The source of the carbon dioxide is less clear, and could be either the result of organics in the surface ice being oxidized, or from outgassing from the moon’s interior.
Rhea may also have a tenuous ring system, which was inferred based on observed changes in the flow of electrons trapped by Saturn’s magnetic field. The existence of a ring system was temporarily bolstered by the discovered presence of a set of small ultraviolet-bright spots distributed along Rhea’s equator (which were interpreted as the impact points of deorbiting ring material).
However, more recent observations made by the Cassini probe have cast doubt on this. After taking images of the planet from multiple angles, no evidence of ring material was found, suggesting that there must be another cause for the observed electron flow and UV bright spots on Rhea’s equator. If such a ring system were to exist, it would be the first instance where a ring system was found orbiting a moon.
The first images of Rhea were obtained by the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft while they studied the Cronian system, in 1980 and 1981, respectively. No subsequent missions were made until the arrival of the Cassini orbiter in 2005. After it’s arrival in the Cronian system, the orbiter made five close targeted fly-bys and took many images of Saturn from long to moderate distances.
The Cronian system is definitely a fascinating place, and we’ve really only begun to scratch its surface in recent years. In time, more orbiters and perhaps landers will be traveling to the system, seeking to learn more about Saturn’s moons and what exists beneath their icy surfaces. One can only hope that any such mission includes a closer look at Rhea, and the other “Death Star Moon”, Dione.
Exploring the Solar System is like peeling an onion. With every layer removed, one finds fresh mysteries to ponder over, each one more confounding than the last. And this is certainly the case when it comes to Jupiter’s system of moons, particularly its four largest – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Known as the Galilean Moons, in honor of their founder, these moons possess enough natural wonders to keep scientists busy for centuries.
As Jupiter’s innermost moon, it is also the fourth-largest moon in the Solar System, has the highest density of any known moon, and is the driest known object in the Solar System. It is also one of only four known bodies that experiences active volcanism and – with over 400 active volcanoes – it is the most geologically active body in the Solar System.
With 67 confirmed satellites, Jupiter has the largest system of moons in the Solar System. The greatest of these are the four major moons of Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – otherwise known as the Galilean Moons. Named in honor of their founder, these moons are not only comparable in size to some planets (such as Mercury), they are also some of the few places outside of Earth where liquid water exists, and perhaps even life.
But it is Callisto, the fourth and farthest moon of Jupiter, that may be the most rewarding when it comes to scientific research. In addition to the possibility of a subsurface ocean, this moon is the only Galilean far enough outside of Jupiter’s powerful magnetosphere that it does not experience harmful levels of radiation. This, and the prospect of finding life, make Callisto a prime candidate for future exploration.
Discovery and Naming:
Along with Io, Europa and Ganymede, Callisto was discovered in January of 1610 by Galileo Galilei using a telescope of his own design. Like all the Galilean Moons, it takes its name from one of Zeus’ lovers in classic Greek mythology. Callisto was a nymph (or the daughter of Lycaon) who was associated with the goddess of the hunt, Artemis.
The name was suggested by German astronomer Simon Marius, apparently at the behest of Johannes Kepler. However, Galileo initially refused to use them, and the moons named in his honor were designed as Jupiter I through IV, based on their proximity to their parent planet. Being the farthest planet from Jupiter, Callisto was known as Jupiter IV until the 20th century, by which time, the names suggested by Marius were adopted.
Size, Mass and Orbit:
With a mean radius of 2410.3 ± 1.5 km (0.378 Earths) and a mass of 1.0759 × 1023 kg (0.018 Earths), Callisto is the second largest Jupiter’s moons (after Ganymede) and the third largest satellite in the solar system. Much like Ganymede, it is comparable in size to Mercury – being 99% as large – but due to its mixed composition, it has less than one-third of Mercury mass.
Callisto orbits Jupiter at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 1,882,700 km. It has a very minor eccentricity (0.0074) and ranges in distance from 1,869,000 km at periapsis to 1,897,000 km at apoapsis. This distance, which is far greater than Ganymede’s, means that Callisto does not take part in the mean-motion resonance that Io, Europa and Ganymede do.
Much like the other Galileans, Callisto’s rotation is synchronous with its orbit. This means that it takes the same amount of time (16.689 days) for Callisto to complete a single orbit of Jupiter and a single rotation on its axis. Its orbit is very slightly eccentric and inclined to the Jovian equator, with the eccentricity and inclination changing over the course of centuries due to solar and planetary gravitational perturbations.
Unlike the other Galileans, Callisto’s distant orbit means that it has never experienced much in the way of tidal-heating, which has had a profound impact on its internal structure and evolution. Its distance from Jupiter also means that the charged particles from Jupiter’s magnetosphere have had a very minor influence on its surface.
Composition and Surface Features:
The average density of Callisto, at 1.83 g/cm3, suggests a composition of approximately equal parts of rocky material and water ice, with some additional volatile ices such as ammonia. Ice is believed to constitute 49-55% of the moon, with the rock component likely made up of chondrites, silicates and iron oxide.
Callisto’s surface composition is thought to be similar to its composition as a whole, with water ice constituting 25-50% of its overall mass. High-resolution, near-infrared and UV spectra imaging have revealed the presence of various non-ice materials, such as magnesium and iron-bearing hydrated silicates, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and possibly ammonia and various organic compounds.
Beneath the surface is an icy lithosphere that is between 80-150 m thick. A salty ocean 50–200 km deep is believed to exist beneath this, thanks to the presence of radioactive elements and the possible existence of ammonia. Evidence of this ocean include Jupiter’s magnetic field, which shows no signs of penetrating Callisto’s surface. This suggests a layer of highly conductive fluid that is at least 10 km in depth. However, if this water contains ammonia, which is more likely, than it could be up to 250-300 km.
Beneath this hypothetical ocean, Callisto’s interior appears to be composed of compressed rocks and ices, with the amount of rock increasing with depth. This means, in effect, that Callisto is only partially differentiated, with a small silicate core no larger than 600 km (and a density of 3.1-3.6 g/cm³) surrounded by a mix of ice and rock.
Spectral data has also indicated that Callisto’s surface is extremely heterogeneous at the small scale. Basically, the surface consists of small, bright patches of pure water ice, intermixed with patches of a rock–ice mixture, and extended dark areas made of a non-ice material.
Compared to the other Galilean Moons, Callisto’s surface is quite dark, with a surface albedo of about 20%. Another difference is the nature of its asymmetric appearance. Whereas with the other Galileans, the leading hemisphere is lighter than the trailing one, with Callisto the opposite is true.
An immediately obvious feature about Callisto’s surface is the ancient and heavily cratered nature of it. In fact, the surface is the most cratered in the Solar System and is almost entirely saturated by craters, with newer ones having formed over older ones. What’s more, impact craters and their associated structures are the only large features on the surface. There are no mountains, volcanoes or other endogenic tectonic features.
Callisto’s impact craters range in size from 0.1 km to over 100 km, not counting the multi-ring structures. Small craters, with diameters less than 5 km, have simple bowl or flat-floored shapes, whereas those that measure 5–40 km usually have a central peak.
Larger impact features, with diameters that range from 25–100 km have central pits instead of peaks. Those with diameters over 60 km can have central domes, which are thought to result from central tectonic uplift after an impact.
The largest impact features on Callisto’s surface are multi-ring basins, which probably originated as a result of post-impact concentric fracturing which took place over a patch of lithosphere that overlay a section of soft or liquid material (possibly a patch of the interior ocean). The largest of these are Valhalla and Asgard, whose central, bright regions measure 600 and 1600 km in diameter (respectively) with rings extending farther outwards.
The relative ages of the different surface units on Callisto can be determined from the density of impact craters on them – the older the surface, the denser the crater population. Based on theoretical considerations, the cratered plains are thought to be ~4.5 billion years old, dating back almost to the formation of the Solar System.
The ages of multi-ring structures and impact craters depend on chosen background cratering rates, and are estimated by different researchers to vary between 1 and 4 billion years of age.
Callisto has a very tenuous atmosphere composed of carbon dioxide which has an estimated surface pressure of 7.5 × 10-¹² bar (0.75 micro Pascals) and a particle density of 4 × 108 cm-3. Because such a thin atmosphere would be lost in only about 4 days, it must be constantly replenished, possibly by slow sublimation of carbon dioxide ice from Callisto’s icy crust.
While it has not been directly detected, it is believed that molecular oxygen exists in concentrations 10-100 times greater than CO². This is evidenced by the high electron density of the planet’s ionosphere, which cannot be explained by the photoionization of carbon dioxide alone. However, condensed oxygen has been detected on the surface of Callisto, trapped within its icy crust.
Much like Europa and Ganymede, and Saturn’s moons of Enceladus, Mimas, Dione, Titan, the possible existence of a subsurface ocean on Callisto has led many scientists to speculate about the possibility of life. This is particularly likely if the interior ocean is made up of salt-water, since halophiles (which thrive in high salt concentrations) could live there.
In addition, the possibility of extra-terrestrial microbial life has also been raised with respect to Callisto. However, the environmental conditions necessary for life to appear (which include the presence of sufficient heat due to tidal flexing) are more likely on Europa and Ganymede. The main difference is the lack of contact between the rocky material and the interior ocean, as well as the lower heat flux in Callisto’s interior.
In essence, while Callisto possesses the necessary pre-biotic chemistry to host life, it lacks the necessary energy. Because of this, the most likely candidate for the existence of extra-terrestrial life in Jupiter’s system of moons remains Europa.
The first exploration missions to Callisto were the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts, which conducted flybys of the Galilean moon in 1973 and 1974, respectively, But these missions provided little additional information beyond what had already learned through Earth-based observations. In contrast, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, which conducted flybys of the moon in 1979, managed to image more than half the surface and precisely measured Callisto’s temperature, mass and shape.
Further exploration took place between 1994 and 2003, when the Galileo spacecraft performed eight close flybys with Callisto. The orbiter completed the global imaging of the surface and delivered a number of pictures with a resolution as high as 15 meters. In 2000, while en route to Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft acquired high-quality infrared spectra of the Galilean satellites, including Callisto.
In February–March 2007, while en route to Pluto, the New Horizons probe obtained new images and spectra of Callisto. Using its Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) instrument, the probe was able to reveal how lighting and viewing conditions affect infrared spectrum readings of its surface water ice.
The next planned mission to the Jovian system is the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE), due to launch in 2022. Ostensibly geared towards exploring Europa and Ganymede, the mission profile also includes several close flybys of Callisto.
Compared to the other Galileans, Callisto presents numerous advantages as far as colonization is concerned. Much like the others, the moon has an abundant supply of water in the form of surface ice (but also possibly liquid water beneath the surface). But unlike the others, Callisto’s distance from Jupiter means that colonists would have far less to worry about in terms of radiation.
In 2003, NASA conducted a conceptual study called Human Outer Planets Exploration (HOPE) regarding the future human exploration of the outer Solar System. The target chosen to consider in detail was Callisto, for the purposes of investigating the possible existence of life forms embedded in the ice crust on this moon and on Europa.
The study proposed a possible surface base on Callisto where a crew could “teleoperate a Europa submarine and excavate Callisto surface samples near the impact site”. In addition, this base could extract water from Callisto’s ample supply of water ices to produce rocket propellant for further exploration of the Solar System.
The advantages of a base on Callisto include low radiation (due to its distance from Jupiter) and geological stability. Such a base could facilitate exploration on other Galilean Moons, and be an ideal location for a Jovian system way station, servicing spacecraft heading farther into the outer Solar System – which would likely take the form of craft using a gravity assist from a close flyby of Jupiter.
So while Callisto may not be the best target in the search for extra-terrestrial life, it may be the most hospitable of Jupiter’s moons for human life. In either case, any future missions to Jupiter will likely include a stopovers to Callisto, with the intent of investigating both of these possibilities.
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.
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 1780s.
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.
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.
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 (0.6 mi) 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. Its 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.
Within this scheme, there are three zones. 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.
Much like the terrestrial planets, most asteroids are composed of silicate rock while a small portion contains 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.
The Main 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 while their spectra is similar to what the early Solar System’s is believed to be.
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 that have been predicted are currently 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 would have involved collisions between larger objects (with a mean radius of ~10 km) that then broke up into smaller bodies.
Some of the most prominent families in the asteroid belt are the Flora, Eunomia, 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 two 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 a 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, the 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).
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 micrometers. 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.
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.
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, planetesimals were too strongly perturbed by Jupiter’s gravity to form a planet. These objects would 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 as much mass as 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).
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.
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 flyby of Jupiter (which culminated in December of 1973) before becoming the first spacecraft to achieve escape velocity from the Solar System.
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 Hayabusamissions 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 be mined 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 of more objects out there to study.
A quarter of a century has passed since NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft snapped the iconic image of Earth known as the “Pale Blue Dot” that shows all of humanity as merely a tiny point of light.
The outward bound Voyager 1 space probe took the ‘pale blue dot’ image of Earth 25 years ago on Valentine’s Day, on Feb. 14, 1990 when it looked back from its unique perch beyond the orbit of Neptune to capture the first ever “portrait” of the solar system from its outer realms.
Voyager 1 was 4 billion miles from Earth, 40 astronomical units (AU) from the sun and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic at that moment.
The idea for the images came from the world famous astronomer Carl Sagan, who was a member of the Voyager imaging team at the time.
He head the idea of pointing the spacecraft back toward its home for a last look as a way to inspire humanity. And to do so before the imaging system was shut down permanently thereafter to repurpose the computer controlling it, save on energy consumption and extend the probes lifetime, because it was so far away from any celestial objects.
Sagan later published a well known and regarded book in 1994 titled “Pale Blue Dot,” that refers to the image of Earth in Voyagers series.
“Twenty-five years ago, Voyager 1 looked back toward Earth and saw a ‘pale blue dot,’ ” an image that continues to inspire wonderment about the spot we call home,” said Ed Stone, project scientist for the Voyager mission, based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, in a statement.
Six of the Solar System’s nine known planets at the time were imaged, including Venus, Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. The other three didn’t make it in. Mercury was too close to the sun, Mars had too little sunlight and little Pluto was too dim.
Voyager snapped a series of images with its wide angle and narrow angle cameras. Altogether 60 images from the wide angle camera were compiled into the first “solar system mosaic.”
Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida as part of a twin probe series with Voyager 2. They successfully conducted up close flyby observations of the gas giant outer planets including Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in the 1970s and 1980s.
Both probes still operate today as part of the Voyager Interstellar Mission.
“After taking these images in 1990, we began our interstellar mission. We had no idea how long the spacecraft would last,” Stone said.
Hurtling along at a distance of 130 astronomical units from the sun, Voyager 1 is the farthest human-made object from Earth.
Voyager 1 still operates today as the first human made instrument to reach interstellar space and continues to forge new frontiers outwards to the unexplored cosmos where no human or robotic emissary as gone before.
Here’s what Sagan wrote in his “Pale Blue Dot” book:
“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. … There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Exactly 40 Years ago today on Feb. 5, 1974, Mariner 10, accomplished a history making and groundbreaking feat when the NASA science probe became the first spacecraft ever to test out and execute the technique known as a planetary gravity assisted flyby used to alter its speed and trajectory – in order to reach another celestial body.
Mariner 10 flew by Venus 40 years ago to enable the probe to gain enough speed and alter its flight path to eventually become humanity’s first spacecraft to reach the planet Mercury, closest to our Sun.
Indeed it was the first spacecraft to visit two planets.
During the flyby precisely four decades ago, Mariner 10 snapped its 1st close up view of Venus – see above.
From that moment forward, gravity assisted slingshot maneuvers became an extremely important technique used numerous times by NASA to carry out planetary exploration missions that would not otherwise have been possible.
For example, NASA’s twin Voyager 1 and 2 probes launched barely three years later in 1977 used the gravity speed boost to conduct their own historic flyby expeditions to our Solar Systems outer planets.
Without the flyby’s, the rocket launchers thrust by themselves did not provide sufficient interplanetary speed to reach their follow on targets.
NASA’s Juno Jupiter orbiter just flew back around Earth this past October 9, 2013 to gain the speed it requires to reach the Jovian system.
The Mariner 10 probe used an ultraviolet filter in its imaging system to bring out details in the Venusian clouds which are otherwise featureless to the human eye – as you’ll notice when viewing it through a telescope.
Venus surface is completely obscured by a thick layer of carbon dioxide clouds.
The hellish planet’s surface temperature is 460 degrees Celsius or 900 degrees Fahrenheit.
Following the completely successful Venus flyby, Mariner 10 eventually went on to conduct a trio of flyby’s of Mercury in 1974 and 1975.
It imaged nearly half of the planets moon-like surface, found surprising evidence of a magnetic field, discovered that a metallic core comprised nearly 80 percent of the planet’s mass, and measured temperatures ranging from 187°C on the dayside to minus 183°C on the nightside.
Mercury was not visited again for over three decades until NASA’s MESSENGER flew by and eventually orbited the planet – and where it remains active today.
Mariner 10 was launched on Nov. 3, 1973 from the Kennedy Space Center atop an Atlas-Centaur rocket.
Shortly after blastoff if also took photos of the Earth and the Moon.
Ultimately it was the last of NASA’s venerable Mariner planetary missions hailing from the dawn of the Space Age.
Mariner 11 and 12 were descoped due to congressional budget cuts and eventually renamed as Voyager 1 and 2.
The Mariner 10 science team was led by Bruce Murray of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif.
Murray eventually became the Director of JPL. After he passed away in 2013, key science features on Martian mountain climbing destinations were named in his honor by the Opportunity and Curiosity Mars rover science teams.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing LADEE, Chang’e-3, Orion, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, Mars rover and more planetary and human spaceflight news.