See the 42 largest asteroids in the solar system in detail

Far at the boundary of the outer solar system between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter is the asteroid belt, where hundreds of thousands of small objects orbit the sun. Most of these objects are small, rocky asteroids, but some are known to be 60 miles or more wide. Today, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) released images of 42 of the belt’s largest asteroids, showing their variety of sizes and shapes.

The asteroids were imaged using ESO’s Very Large Telescope, marking the most detailed observation of many of these bodies to date. They include well-known bodies like the dwarf planet Ceres, the metallic asteroid Psyche, and the asteroid Vesta, which was visited by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft in 2011. But they also include lesser-known oddities like Kleopatra in bone-shaped or the flattened, elongated Sylvie.

This poster shows 42 of the largest objects in the asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter (orbits not to scale). ESO/M. Algorithm Kornmesser/Vernazza et al./MISTRAL (ONERA/CNRS)

“Only three large main-belt asteroids, Ceres, Vesta, and Lutetia, have been imaged in high detail so far, as they were visited by NASA and the Agency’s Dawn and Rosetta space missions. space, respectively,” said the study’s lead author, Pierre Vernazza of the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille in France, in a statement. “Our ESO observations provided sharp images for many more targets, 42 in total.”

Ceres and Vesta, the two largest objects in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, about 940 and 520 kilometers in diameter.
These images were captured with the SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch) instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope as part of a program that has studied 42 of the largest asteroids in our solar system. They show Ceres and Vesta, the two largest objects in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, about 940 and 520 kilometers in diameter. Algorithm ESO/Vernazza et al./MISTRAL (ONERA/CNRS)

By examining the shapes of the asteroids, which range in size from Ceres at 580 miles in diameter to Urania and Ausonia at 56 miles in diameter, the researchers were able to classify them into two groups: the nearly perfectly spherical and the elongated. They also found significant variability in the density of the asteroids, suggesting that they are not all composed of the same material.

This means that asteroids may have formed in different places and migrate to the asteroid belt over time. Some of the bone-shaped asteroids may even have formed as far away as beyond Neptune’s orbit before ending up in the asteroid belt.

Researchers now want to continue studying the belt asteroids using the upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). This more powerful telescope could also allow them to see even more distant objects in our solar system, such as those in the distant Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune.

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Arline J. Mercier