Asteroids are minor planets, especially those of the inner Solar System. The larger ones have also been called planetoids. These terms have historically been applied to any astronomical object orbiting the Sun that did not show the disc of a planet and was not observed to have the characteristics of an active comet. As minor planets in the outer Solar System were discovered and found to have volatile-based surfaces that resemble those of comets, they were often distinguished from asteroids of the asteroid belt. In this article, the term “asteroid” refers to the minor planets of the inner Solar System including those co-orbital with Jupiter.
There are millions of asteroids, many thought to be the shattered remnants of planetesimals, bodies within the young Sun’s solar nebula that never grew large enough to become planets. The large majority of known asteroids orbit in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, or are co-orbital with Jupiter (the Jupiter trojans). However, other orbital families exist with significant populations, including the near-Earth objects. Individual asteroids are classified by their characteristic spectra, with the majority falling into three main groups: C-type, M-type, and S-type. These were named after and are generally identified with carbon-rich, metallic, and silicate (stony) compositions, respectively. The size of asteroids varies greatly, the largest is almost 1,000 km (625 mi) across.
Asteroids are differentiated from comets and meteoroids. In the case of comets, the difference is one of composition: while asteroids are mainly composed of mineral and rock, comets are composed of dust and ice. In addition, asteroids formed closer to the sun, preventing the development of the aforementioned cometary ice. The difference between asteroids and meteoroids is mainly one of size: meteoroids have a diameter of less than one meter, whereas asteroids have a diameter of greater than one meter. Finally, meteoroids can be composed of either cometary or asteroidal materials.
Only one asteroid, 4 Vesta, which has a relatively reflective surface, is normally visible to the naked eye, and this only in very dark skies when it is favorably positioned. Rarely, small asteroids passing close to Earth may be visible to the naked eye for a short time. As of October 2017, the Minor Planet Center had data on almost 745,000 objects in the inner and outer Solar System, of which almost 504,000 had enough information to be given numbered designations.
The United Nations declared June 30 as International Asteroid Day to educate the public about asteroids. The date of International Asteroid Day commemorates the anniversary of the Tunguska asteroid impact over Siberia, Russian Federation, on 30 June 1908.
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