The vast area known as the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter has intrigued scientists for centuries. Its origin and evolution is still a mystery, but we continually are discovering more and more as we study the region from Earth and send robotic spacecraft to unveil its mysteries. The asteroid belt can be thought of as the transition zone from the inner rocky planet solar system to the outer solar system of gas giants and icy moons. Current theories of asteroid belt formation are that the asteroid belt may be derived from destroyed protoplanets that tried to form during the formation of the solar system, or that the asteroids are leftover material that have never been able to completely coalesce into a significant size, laarge enough to be considered a planet. All theories are connected to the gravity of Jupiter, which has a large influence over the whole area.
February is an exciting month to focus on the transition zone between Mars and Jupiter. We have the luxury of tracking multiple spacecraft traveling in the central solar system to observe Mars, Jupiter and the asteroid belt. The spacecraft Rosetta will flyby Mars, to gather data and gravitational energy, to reach its final desination to study a comet in 2014. The spacecraft New Horizons has also been journeying rapidly through the asteroid belt the last few months gathering test images and will flyby Jupiter this month on its way to Pluto in 2016. Also later this year the Dawn mission will launch on its way to study two of the largest objects in the asteroid belt: Ceres and Vesta.
The Rosetta spacecraft will flyby and examine the planet Mars, while using Mars' gravity to assist it on its circuitous route to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko a.k.a "comet C-G" in 2014. Learn more details about the Rosetta mission at http://rosetta.jpl.nasa.gov.
Since January 24th 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft has been heading towards Pluto and the Kuiper belt. This month on its journey to Pluto, it will fly by the planet Jupiter for a close encounter. Its closest approach occurs February 28th.
Another mission that will be launching later this year to the asteroid belt is Dawn. Dawn will visit two of the largest asteroids in the asteroid belt: Ceres and Vesta.
The THEMIS mission launch is scheduled late this month. The THEMIS mission, a set of five small spacecraft, will study the Earth's auroral eruptions. More can be found about aurorae here
The central solar system is a dynamic, interesting destination filled with remnants of the solar systems beginnings. Learn more about this region and its components and possible evolution by reading the following science features: The First Rock in the Solar System, Uncharted Meteors, and New Spin on Asteroids .
Fast Lesson Finder:
K-12 Activities: Search our Fast Lesson Finder to find classroom lessons related to our solar system and beyond. Some activities related to this month's theme includes Asteroid Resources (Edible Asteroid Mining), Analyzing Elemental Abundances, Building Blocks of Planets (Accretion) , Cosmic Chemistry: An Elemental Question and Edible Rocks.
Meet Lucy McFadden: Dr. McFadden is an expert on the transition zone of our solar system and has worked on several small body related missions, including the upcoming Dawn mission.