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An artist's conception of the dwarf planet Ceres in the main asteroid belt.
An artist's conception of the dwarf planet Ceres in the main asteroid belt.
ESA/ATG medialab

8 Astounding Facts About the Asteroid Belt

An artist's conception of the dwarf planet Ceres in the main asteroid belt.
An artist's conception of the dwarf planet Ceres in the main asteroid belt.
ESA/ATG medialab

The asteroid belt tells the story of the creation of the solar system. When it formed, not everything coalesced into a planet. Like LEGO bricks that never made it out of the bucket, these objects were organized by physics into a ring located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. This is the asteroid belt. Here are some things you might not know about it.

1. THERE ARE MORE THAN A HALF-MILLION ASTEROIDS.

The asteroid belt in black and white.
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Over a half-million asteroids have been discovered by scientists, with hundreds of thousands yet to be found. They are generally divided into three classes: S-type (for stony); C-type (chondrites, largely composed of carbon, the most common—and perhaps the oldest—of the bunch); and M-type (metallic). The asteroids range in length from 30 feet to 330 miles. For the most part, they are oddly shaped, and, like the planets, spin (though not always so eloquently). Some asteroids have moons; some have two. Not every asteroid is located in the asteroid belt. Some, called Trojans, share the orbit of Jupiter. Some lurk perilously close to Earth. These are called near-Earth asteroids.

2. ASTEROID MEANS "STAR-LIKE."

A night sky with a shooting star.
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The first asteroid was discovered in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi, though he didn't know it at the time. He thought he had discovered the long-sought planet between Mars and Jupiter. He named his discovery Ceres, after the Roman goddess of harvest (and namesake to the word cereal, though that word wouldn't be coined until 1818).

Just over a year later, another "planet" was discovered. And another. And another. Eventually, there were so many planets that astronomers threw up their hands and gave the whole group a new classification: asteroid, or "star-like" in Greek. The name was chosen because they appeared, well, star-like in telescopes; they would not resolve as discs as planets do. Ceres's run as a planet lasted about 60 years before it was demoted to asteroid. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union reclassified it again, this time as a dwarf planet. This is the same decision that designated Pluto as a dwarf planet, though there is some debate on this point.

3. ALL THE ASTEROIDS IN IT DON'T ADD UP TO MUCH.

An artists' rendering of the asteroid belt.
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It's likely that illustrations you've seen of the asteroid belt are not drawn to scale. If all of the objects in the asteroid belt were brought together and made into a single ball, its combined mass would only be 4 percent of the size of the Moon. In fact, Ceres alone accounts for one-third of the total mass of the asteroid belt. 

4. FLY YOUR SPACESHIP INTO IT. YOU WON'T HIT ANYTHING.

A little girl plays with a toy rocketship in a space system.
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What’s the biggest misconception that people have about the asteroid belt? Mental Floss asked Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu (which once lived in the main asteroid belt before being jarred loose by Saturn and sent on a course for the inner solar system). His response: The Empire Strikes Back. People imagine "that it's this tumbling, highly energetic boulder field with things crashing into each other constantly, and Han Solo has to dodge and weave to avoid collisions," Lauretta says.

But the asteroid belt is downright spacious. If the arcade game Asteroids were real, it would pretty much consist of a ship and a black screen and … nothing to shoot. "When you fly a spacecraft through the asteroid belt, it’s a real challenge to actually get close enough to an asteroid to see it," Lauretta explains. "You have to specifically target it." There are, on average, 620,000–1.8 million miles between asteroids.

5. THE HISTORY OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM IS HIDDEN WITHIN.

An artist's concept of the solar system.
iStock

Back in the 1980s, scientists really set about spectrally classifying each object in the asteroid belt, and they discovered a compositional gradient. There were a lot of dark, carbonaceous objects in the outer asteroid belt, and brighter, "ordinary chondritic," S-type material in the inner asteroid belt. Spectral surveys today are starting to get really detailed, and scientists are getting a good look at objects as small as 6 miles across. As they get into asteroid compositions, they are discovering a fine structure in the compositional pattern, and placing it in the context of the dynamic state of the early solar system.

"Organics and ices are going to be stable farther out [in the belt], and metals and rocks are going to be stable farther in. You expect to see that," says Lauretta. "But now you're starting to see that there really are organic-rich and water-rich materials in the main belt. It's a small fraction of it, but it's a significant fraction. And there's rocky and bright material in the outer belt." That distribution of material is a record of migration of giant planets and the dynamical evolution of the solar system.

"I think we're going to be able to piece together a much more complex, chemical-dynamical coupled model of the evolution of the solar system, and see it almost like the stratigraphic layers of the geologic record. It will tell us the story of the evolution of the belt—not just the initial protoplanetary disk which established that chemistry, but how major events in the evolution of our solar system modified that distribution."

6. SCIENTISTS ARE SEARCHING FOR ITS MOST ANCIENT OBJECTS.

An asteroid in space.
iStock

Presently, planetary scientists are trying to identify and understand the primordial structures in the asteroid belt much in the same way that paleontologists or geologists search for the earliest signs of the origin of life in the geologic record. "That's where the biggest challenge lies," says Lauretta. "There is, in the most ancient examples, a discrete signal that you've got to pull out. It's going to be very tiny."

Scientists endeavor to understand what has been preserved from the dawn of the solar system—what they can trust as a true primordial signature of how our planetary system formed—versus what has been eroded or modified or changed over 4.5 billion years of evolution. "Trying to pick out that starting condition and targeting our scientific investigations into those areas is where the greatest challenge lies."

NASA's recently announced Lucy mission to multiple asteroids will help do this. "Everybody thinks those Trojans are the ones that hold that key to the earliest, most primitive material of the solar system," says Lauretta. "The Lucy team can get out there and do some cool science."

7. ASTEROIDS ARE LIKE SNOWFLAKES.

A snowflake in snow on a dark background.
iStock

No two are exactly alike, and each one has its own story to tell. "Every asteroid is a unique world to explore, and that is awesome," says Lauretta. "There is so much diversity and so many challenges out there. When we truly get out there and start poking around, we're going to see some stuff happening that we never even dreamed of."

8. NASA IS GOING BIG ON ASTEROIDS.

An artist's drawing of Dawn firing its engines above Ceres.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is currently in orbit around Ceres, where it continues to characterize that object and how it changes as it circles the Sun. (It previously orbited Vesta, making it the only spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial bodies.) NASA's OSIRIS-REx will arrive at the asteroid Bennu in August 2018. Earlier this year, the agency approved two missions to small bodies: the spacecraft Psyche will travel to the asteroid 16 Psyche, a mysterious, all-metal world. (It might once have been the core of a protoplanet.) The Lucy mission will travel to five Trojan asteroids that share Jupiter's orbit. The Japanese Space Agency's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft will arrive next year at Ryugu (a.k.a. 1999 JU3), a near-Earth asteroid. Like OSIRIS-REx, it will take a sample and return it to Earth for analysis.

And that analysis is serious business. In the case of samples and meteorites, Lauretta says, "most people don't realize that we pick apart these things grain by grain, atom by atom, isotope ratio by isotope ratio, and put together detailed stories about what happened billions of years ago in our solar system."

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An artist's conception of the dwarf planet Ceres in the main asteroid belt.
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Space
Now You Can Train to Be an Astronaut on Your Smartphone
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Just because you don't work for NASA doesn't mean you'll never make it as an astronaut. In the world of private space tourism, a little training could be all you need. And there's an app for that.

Space Nation, a Finnish space tourism startup, recently launched Space Nation Navigator, which the company touts as the first astronaut training app in the world. The app aims to train future space travelers using games, quizzes, and fitness challenges that fall into three categories: "body," "mind," and "social."

Each of the challenges is tailored to help you develop the skills you'd need to survive in space—even the mundane ones. One mission is called "Did you clean behind the fridge?" and is designed to highlight the unpleasant chores crew members on the ISS have to do to keep things tidy. There are "survival" quizzes that test your knowledge of how to properly build a fire, read a map, and dispose of your poop in the forest. The app also plugs into your smartphone fitness data so that you can participate in athletic challenges, like a 650-foot sprint designed to train you to escape a meteor impact zone.

Screenshots of the Space Nation Navigator app
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"Space Nation Navigator offers a way for anyone, anywhere to have a 15-minute astronaut experience every day. These astronaut skills—team building, problem solving, positive life hacks—are not just vital to survive in space," Space Nation CEO Kalle Vähä-Jaakkola said in a press statement. "They are also crucial in your daily life."

New challenges are added to your queue every few hours, and you can compete against other users for high scores. If you get enough points, you can become eligible for real-life training experiences with Space Nation, including a trip to Iceland. In 2019, Space Nation plans to hold an international competition to find one astronaut that the program will send to space.

If you're going to start training, we suggest you take some of the tests Project Mercury applicants faced back in 1958 to see how you'd stack up against the first NASA astronauts.

Get it: iOS, Android

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Big Questions
If Earth is Always Moving, Then How Do We See the Same Constellations Every Night?
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Luis Medrano:

6700 mph is nothing in cosmological speeds and distances. Constellations are freakin’ far away.

Get in a car at night and drive on a straight road, then look at the moon. The angle of the moon in respect to your point of view doesn’t change; it seems like the moon is following you wherever you go. Meanwhile, things that are really close to you—like electric poles, roadside buildings, and trees—seem to fly by really fast.

The effect is known as parallax. Things that are close seem to move faster and “travel more distance” (not really) than things that are far away.

In the video above, there are several objects in perspective. The light in the center, which represents the sun, was placed so far away you can barely see it move.

The sun is only eight light-minutes away; that’s 146 million km on average. At human scale it seems like a lot, but in cosmic distances it is nothing. Orion, for example, has stars that are from 243 to 1360 light years away from us. Imagine traveling at the speed of light for 1360 years. That’s how far these stars are. And these are not even the farthest stars. Some stars are Giga-light years away from us.

Now, with the proper precision instruments you can indeed notice the parallax in distant stars, just not with the naked eye. Furthermore, our solar system has moved so much since the early days of astronomy and astrology, the constellations do not correspond to the early astrology maps. The constellations appear shifted.

As a free info nugget: In case your life is ruled by astrology, whatever sign you think you are, you are not.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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