What's New: November 2018

Revisiting the "Vermin of the Skies"

Asteroids were once known among astronomers as the “vermin of the skies” for their penchant to leave distracting trails on deep-sky photographic plates. These days, asteroids are themselves the objects of intense study, both from Earth and from space.

Part of this interest stems from the realization that impacts of asteroids on Earth have profoundly shaped our planet’s evolution; they are, for example, the likely cause of the mass extinction that led to the end of the dinosaurs. Knowing more about these bodies may, sometime in the future, enable us to prevent a similar fate.

Asteroids are also of interest as potential resources as our civilization expands into space. There are already private companies formed with the goal of exploiting the mineral resources – such as platinum and rare metals – these objects may possess. Even more valuable to space exploration may be the water bound up in the rocks; it may be a key source of water for drinking or – once separated into hydrogen and oxygen – for use as a rocket fuel.

The greatest value of asteroids, however, may lie in the knowledge they provide about the origin and evolution of the Solar System. They may represent primordial material out of which the planets formed, and their diverse populations may have much to tell of the subsequent history of the Solar System.

The importance placed on these objects is reflected in the fact that there are currently not one but two space missions which will attempt to approach asteroids to obtain samples and return them to Earth for study.

asteroid Ryugu