Universe and Solar System
When the solar system formed, most of the matter ended up in the Sun. Material spinning in a disk around the Sun clumped together into larger pieces to form the eight planets. However, some of the smaller pieces of matter never joined one of these larger bodies and are still out there in space. (Other Objects in the Solar System | Earth Science, n.d.)
Asteroids are tiny, rocky bodies that orbit the Sun. “Asteroid” means “star-like,” and in a telescope, asteroids look like points of light, just like stars. Asteroids are irregularly shaped because they do not have enough gravity to become round. They are also too small to maintain an atmosphere, and without internal heat, they are not geologically active. Collisions with other bodies may break up the asteroid or create craters on its surface.
Asteroid impacts have had dramatic impacts on the shaping of the planets, including Earth. Early impacts caused the planets to grow as they cleared their portions of space. An impact with an asteroid about the size of Mars caused Earth’s fragments to fly into space and ultimately create the moon. Asteroid impacts are linked to mass extinctions throughout Earth history.
The Asteroid Belt
Hundreds of thousands of asteroids have been discovered in our solar system. They are still being discovered at a rate of about 5,000 new asteroids per month. The majority of the asteroids are found in between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter in a region called the asteroid belt. Although there are many thousands of asteroids in the asteroid belt, their total mass adds up to only about 4 percent of Earth’s moon.
Scientists think that the bodies in the asteroid belt formed during the formation of the solar system. The asteroids might have come together to make a single planet, but they were pulled apart by Jupiter’s intense gravity.
More than 4,500 asteroids cross Earth’s orbit; they are near-Earth asteroids. Between 500 and 1,000 of these are over 1 km in diameter. Any object whose orbit crosses Earth’s can collide with Earth, and many asteroids do. On average, each year, a rock about 5–10 m in diameter hits Earth. Since past asteroid impacts have been implicated in mass extinctions, astronomers are always on the lookout for new asteroids and follow the known near-Earth asteroids closely to predict a possible collision as early as possible.
Scientists are interested in asteroids because they are representatives of the earliest solar system. Eventually, asteroids could be mined for rare minerals or construction projects in space. A few missions have studied asteroids directly. NASA’s DAWN mission orbited asteroid Vesta from July 2011 to September 2012 and is on its way to meet dwarf planet Ceres in 2015.
Thousands of objects, including comets and asteroids, are zooming around our solar system; some could be on a collision course with Earth. A meteor is a streak of light across the sky. People call them shooting stars, but small pieces of matter are burning up as they enter Earth’s atmosphere from space.
Meteors are called meteoroids before they reach Earth’s atmosphere. Meteoroids are smaller than asteroids and range from the size of boulders down to the size of tiny sand grains. Still, smaller objects are called interplanetary dust. When Earth passes through a cluster of meteoroids, there is a meteor shower. These clusters are often remnants left behind by comet tails.
Although most meteors burn up in the atmosphere, larger meteoroids may strike the Earth’s surface to create a meteorite. Meteorites are valuable to scientists because they provide clues about our solar system. Many meteorites are from asteroids that formed when the solar system formed. A few meteorites are made of rocky material that is thought to have come from Mars when an asteroid impact shot material off the Martian surface and into space.
Comets are small, icy objects that have very elliptical orbits around the Sun. Their orbits carry them from the outer solar system to the inner solar system, close to the Sun. Early in Earth’s history, comets may have brought water and other substances to Earth during collisions.
Comet tails form the outer layers of ice melt and evaporate as the comet flies close to the Sun. The ice from the comet vaporizes and forms a glowing coma, which reflects light from the Sun. Radiation and particles streaming from the Sun push this gas and dust into a long tail that always points away from the Sun. Comets appear for only a short time when they are near the Sun; they seem to disappear again as they move back to the outer solar system.
The time between one appearance of a comet and the next is called the comet’s period. Halley’s comet, with a period of 75 years, will next be seen in 2061. The first mention of the comet in historical records may go back as much as two millennia. Short-period comets, with periods of about 200 years or less, come from a region beyond Neptune’s orbit. The Kui-per belt (pronounced “KI-per”) contains not only comets, but asteroids, and at least two dwarf planets.
Comets, with periods as long as thousands or even millions of years, come from a distant region of the solar system called the Oort cloud, about 50,000–100,000 AU from the Sun (50,000–100,000 times the distance from the Sun to Earth).
The dwarf planets of our solar system are exciting proof of how much we are learning about our solar system. With the discovery of many new objects in our solar system, in 2006, astronomers refined the definition of a planet. Their subsequent reclassification of Pluto to the new category dwarf planet stirred up a great deal of controversy. How the classification of Pluto has evolved is an interesting story in science.
From the time it was discovered in 1930 until the early 2000s, Pluto was considered the ninth planet. When astronomers first located Pluto, the telescopes were not as good as they are today. Back then, astronomers believe Pluto and its moon, Charon, were one large object. With better telescopes, astronomers realized that Pluto was much smaller than they had initially been thought. Better technology also allowed astronomers to discover many smaller objects like Pluto that orbit the Sun. One of them, Eris, discovered in 2005, is even larger than Pluto.
Even when it was considered a planet, Pluto was an oddball. Unlike the other outer planets in the solar system, which are all gas giants, it is small, icy, and rocky. With a diameter of about 2,400 km, it is only about one-fifth the mass of Earth’s Moon. Pluto’s orbit is tilted relative to the other planets and is shaped like a long, narrow ellipse. Pluto’s orbit sometimes even passes inside Neptune’s orbit.
In 1992 Pluto’s orbit was recognized to be part of the Kuiper Belt. With more than 200 million Kuiper belt objects, Pluto has failed the test of clearing other bodies out its orbit. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union decided that there were too many questions surrounding what could be called a planet and so refined its definition.
According to the new definition, a planet must:
- Orbit a star
- Be big enough that its gravity causes it to be shaped like a sphere.
- Be small enough that it is not a star itself.
- Have cleared the area of its orbit of smaller objects.
- A dwarf planet is an object that meets items the first three items in the list above, but not the fourth. Pluto is now called a dwarf planet, along with the objects Ceres, Make-make, and Eris.
According to the IAU, a dwarf planet must:
- Orbit a star
- Have enough mass to be nearly spherical
- Not have cleared the area around its orbit of smaller objects.
- Not be a moon
Pluto has three moons of its own. The largest, Charon, is big enough that the Pluto-Charon system is sometimes considered to be a double dwarf planet. Two smaller moons, Nix and Hydra, were discovered in 2005. However, having moons is not enough to make an object a planet.
Ceres is the most massive object in the asteroid belt. Before 2006, Ceres was considered the largest of the asteroids, with only about 1.3 percent of the mass of the Earth’s Moon. However, unlike the asteroids, Ceres has enough mass that its gravity causes it to be shaped like a sphere. Like Pluto, Ceres is rocky. Ceres orbits the Sun, is round, and is not a moon. As part of the asteroid belt, its orbit is full of other smaller bodies, so Ceres fails the fourth criterion for being a planet.
Makemake is the third largest and second brightest dwarf planet we have discovered so far. With a diameter estimated to be between 1,300 and 1,900 km, it is about three-quarters the size of Pluto. Makemake orbits the Sun in 310 years at a distance between 38.5 to 53 AU. It is thought to be made of methane, ethane, and nitrogen ices.
Eris is the most widely-known dwarf planet in the solar system, which is roughly 27 percent more massive than Pluto. The object was not discovered until 2003 because it is about three times farther from the Sun than Pluto, and almost 100 times farther from the Sun than Earth is. For a short time, Eris was considered the “tenth planet” in the solar system, but its discovery helped to prompt astronomers to better define planets and dwarf planets in 2006. Eris also has a small moon, Dysnomia, that orbits it once about every 16 days.
Astronomers know there may be other dwarf planets in the outer reaches of the solar system. Haumea was made a dwarf planet in 2008, and so now the total is five. Quaoar, Varuna, and Orcus may be added to the list of dwarf planets in the future. We still have a lot to discover and explore.