Nice Belt

September 10, 2010

Rheanna Sand

For much of human history, astronomy was focused on the biggest and brightest in the solar system. Until Herchel improved the telescope, the wandering planets and the return of comets occupied the greatest minds. Then, in 1801,Guiseppe Piazzi, Carl Gauss and Franz von Zach discovered what they thought was a new planet in between Jupiter and Mars.

What they found instead was not a planet, or a comet, but something in between. They named it Ceres, an homage to the patron goddess of Sicily. New discoveries soon followed: Pallas, which is slightly smaller with a more eccentric orbit; Juno, the runt; and Vesta, the biggest (although she prefers "big boned").

By the time Ida, pictured above, was discovered in 1884, a total of 243 asteroids were known. Now we know that they are part of a large - and dare I say, fashionable - asteroid belt that is comprised of over 530,000 objects and counting.


But why talk numbers when you have an amazing time-lapse animation? This 3-minute video, courtesy of YouTube user szyzyg, shows asteroid data collected from the past thirty years. New discoveries flash in white, and pay attention to the red asteroids, as these are the ones with a near-Earth orbit.


Two of these near-Earth objects, 2010 RX30 and 2010 RF12, both swept by our planet two days ago, on September 8th, at a distance closer than the moon. Close encounters aren't rare - in fact, there is one today by something called 2010 PR10 - but objects getting THAT close, within 0.6 and 0.2 lunar distances, are pretty uncommon. Fortunately, since NASA is tracking these objects, a pair of amateur astronomers in New Mexico managed to catch one of them on camera.

So… close encounters. Future planet-saving missions. Retro video games. Asteroids. Are. Hip.



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