This composite image shows the comparative sizes of nine asteroids. Up until now, Lutetia, with a diameter of 81 miles (130 kilometers), was the largest asteroid visited by a spacecraft, which occurred during a flyby. Vesta dwarfs all other small bodies in this image.
Asteroid Vesta also is considered a protoplanet because it’s a large body that almost became a planet and has a diameter of approximately 330 miles (530 kilometers). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/JAXA/ESA
Asteroids (from Greek ἀστήρ ‘star’ and εἶδος ‘like, in form’) are a class of small Solar System bodies in orbit around the Sun. They have also been called planetoids, especially the larger ones. These terms have historically been applied to any astronomical object orbiting the Sun that did not show the disk of a planet and was not observed to have the characteristics of an active comet, but as small objects in the outer Solar System were discovered, their volatile-based surfaces were found to more closely resemble comets, and so were often distinguished from traditional asteroids. Thus the term asteroid has come increasingly to refer specifically to the small rocky–icy and metallic bodies of the inner Solar System out to the orbit of Jupiter. They are grouped with the outer bodies—centaurs, Neptune trojans, and trans-Neptunian objects—as minor planets, which is the term preferred in astronomical circles. This article will restrict the use of the term ‘asteroid’ to the minor planets of the inner Solar System.
There are millions of asteroids, and like most other small Solar System bodies, asteroids are thought to be the often shattered remnants of planetesimals, bodies within the young Sun’s solar nebula that never grew large enough to become planets. A large majority of known asteroids orbit in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter or co-orbital with Jupiter (the Jupiter Trojans). However, other orbital families exist with significant populations, including the near-Earth asteroids. Individual asteroids are classified by their characteristic spectra, with the majority falling into three main groups: C-type, S-type, and M-type. These were named after and are generally identified with carbon-rich, stony, and metallic compositions, respectively.