Astronomy is so much fun because there are so many interesting things going on in the stars above us. The reality is that the cosmos is a continually changing, moving, and some may even say “alive” entity since you never know what you’ll see when you go stargazing.
But, of all the celestial phenomena, none is likely to be as thrilling as the first time you glimpse an asteroid moving through the skies. To refer to asteroids as astronomy’s “rock stars” is both a poor joke and an accurate portrayal of how astronomy aficionados see them. Asteroids, unlike suns, planets, and moons, are constantly moving, changing, and, if visible in the night sky, fascinating and dynamic.
Asteroids, like rock stars, have been the subject of urban legend and mythology. Many people believe that a massive asteroid collided with the planet, causing the dinosaurs to perish. This argument has some merit, and if accurate, it conjures up some frightening pictures and ominous anxieties in the world’s present ruling species, the human race.
The fact that asteroids are fast-moving space junk just adds to the intrigue and excitement of their movement and activity. Unlike a moon, planet, or star, the chances of an asteroid colliding with the earth are rather likely, and there have been several confirmed occurrences of minor asteroids passing through our atmosphere and leaving some rather dramatic craters on the planet’s surface.
The concept of an asteroid collision has been enthusiastically adopted by popular culture. Many science fiction stories have included the premise that extraterrestrial life forms may arrive on our planet through asteroids and initiate a “war of the planets” scenario. But, by far, the most talked-about topic that has caught the imagination and worries of science fiction enthusiasts and the general public is the possibility of another asteroid colliding with the planet, wiping out life like the dinosaurs purportedly did. In reality, the film “Armageddon” was founded on this premise, with the assumption that humanity may use technology to escape the disaster.
But awareness and knowledge are perhaps the greatest ways to ease our concerns and replace science fiction with science. The reality is that asteroid behavior has been extensively studied, and serious scientists have learned a great deal about these remarkable celestial bodies. A handful of asteroids have been probed, providing us with a wealth of knowledge about their composition and how to forecast their behavior.
The bulk of asteroids we see originate from an asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter, as we now know. Many of the prominent asteroids evolved from this population of asteroids. Scientists have learned a lot about the composition of asteroids and have divided them into different classes, such as class S, which comes from the part of the belt closest to Mars, classes C, D, and V, which are classified by composition, and a class called “Centaurs,” which has flight patterns that take them closer to Jupiter and Uranus.
NASA’s probes on near-flying asteroids have produced some astonishing results in their examinations of these strange celestial rocks. In 1994, the Galileo spacecraft approached the asteroid Ida within 1000 miles and found that it has its own moon.
Other spacecraft have fired impactors at asteroids and even landed on one, providing us with incredible scientific data. In our pursuit of astronomy, there is much to learn about asteroids, and this information just adds to our excitement at the prospect of witnessing them in the sky.