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This mesmerizing animation by Scott Manley illustrates the procession of asteroid discoveries from 1980 – 2010, illuminating each as they were spotted and categorized. The colors indicate how closely the asteroids come to the inner solar system… Earth-orbit-crossers are red, Earth-approachers are yellow and all the others are green.
The date counter runs in the lower left of the video.
A couple of interesting things to notice: one, most discoveries occur in groups as the asteroids are on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun (which makes sense considering the lighting achieved) and two, as new methods of locating asteroids are developed (such as automated scanning systems in the 90s and the WISE infrared telescope in early 2010) the incidence of new discoveries rises dramatically.
The video runs at a scale of 60 days per second, and at 1080p resolution it corresponds to about 1 million km per pixel.
This shows that there are quite a lot of smaller worlds in our solar system…over half a million at current count! And it’s estimated that there may be a billion asteroids larger than 100 meters orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. Still, the image of the sci-fi “asteroid belt” filled with tumbling rocks in space isn’t accurate… these worlds are still very far apart, and although they do occasionally collide with each other it’s very likely that if you were to stand on the surface of an asteroid you wouldn’t even be able to see the next closest one!
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft closes in on the asteroid Vesta – the second-largest one in the entire belt – we are getting a better look at these ancient worlds, each a new discovery in itself! And as this animation shows, there’s lots to be discovered.
Credit: Scott Manley. Orbital elements were taken from the ‘astorb.dat’ data created by Ted Bowell and associates at ftp://ftp.lowell.edu/pub/elgb/astorb.html. Music is ‘Transgenic’ by Trifonic.