The Importance Of Asteroid In History Of Humanity

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Asteroids, throughout human history, have received mixed reactions. Primitive peoples regarded its counterpart within the Earth’s atmosphere, meteors, as the herald of catastrophes; others regard it as a promise of better things to come. They were also once mistaken for planets. Their very names misrepresents their composition, as well as classification. Asteroids have also inspired the creation of a video game of the same name, where asteroids come at the player, whose objective is to obliterate the chunks of rock. Others view asteroids as harbringers of extra-terrestial diseases.

Asteroids are rocky objects located in a region between the planet Mars and Jupiter, which is known as the asteroid belt (Bryson, 2003). Asteroids are also known as minor planets (Jones, 1990) as well as planetoids (Bryson, 2003). They are acknowledged to be remains of planets that did not complete their transformation due to the great gravitational pull of Jupiter (Bryson, 2003).

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In 1766, a mathematician named Johann Titus demonstrated through mathematics that there was an undiscovered body orbiting the space between Mars and Jupiter (Jones, 1990). At that time, only six planets were known. The Titius-Bode law states that there is a relationsip between the distances of the planets in the Solar system (Jones 1990). Titius took the numerical series 0, 3, 6, 12, 24, 48, and 96. This series had each element twice the value of the number preceeding it (except for 3). Titius then added four to each element, having 4, 7, 10, 16, 28, 52, and 100. Designating Earth’s distance as 10, all the other planets fall with the remaining numbers: Mercury is 4, Venus is 7, Mars is 16, Jupiter is 52, and Saturn is 100 (Jones, 1990).

This, and the presence of a rather large gap between Mars and Jupiter (Jones, 1990) suggested a lurking unknown object. However, astronomists were rather skeptical of this, which is why Johann Bode had to reintroduce the idea in 1772. It would take years before the mathematical relationship is taken seriously: the discovery of Uranus in 1781 proved to be the tipping point, and the vigorous search for the unknown planet began.

This resulted into the group Celestial Police, organized by Johann Schröter in 1800. The organization’s objective was to locate the unknown planet, and their method was to divide the sky into areas, of which several astronomers were responsible for watching (Jones, 1990). However, the first minor planet to be discovered was not by the Celestial Police, but by Giuseppe Piazzi in Italy, in the year 1801 (Bryson, 2003). This was called Ceres, and along with the next discovered asteroid, Pallas, were classified as planets. William Herschel later discovered that they were rather small to be considered as planets, and called them asteroids instead, meaning “star-like” in Latin, and are very descriptive of asteroids if viewed through telescopes, as they glimmer like stars (Bryson, 2003). It also is known as asteroeides in Greek (Schneider, 1990). Since then, thousands have been identified, out of a billion. Of these, 100 million cross the Earth’s orbit, and may result in an impact that cannot be taken lightly: these asteroids are larger than 10 meters, and may wipe out life on the planet should a collision happen (Bryson, 2003). Yet, people disregard this as they are unaware of the fact that around two or three asteroids a week nearly crashed into Earth (Bryson, 2003). We are driven into a sense of complacency due to the fact that we cannot see these approaching asteroids: most of the asteroids are too small to be seen with a telescope on Earth, until a few days before it hits us, and the telescope has to be trained on the specific area that asteroid is coming from (Bryson, 2003). The chances of a human being looking through a telescope finding an asteroid that will crash into us is very small; very few people are looking for asteroids, the number of which could be graphically described as a little more than the staff of a typical McDonald’s restaurant (Bryson, 2003).

In 1994, a comet named Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter. Instead of Jupiter crushing the comet, as people then predicted, a particle of the comet hit Jupiter at a force of six million megatons (Bryson, 2003). The comet was the size of a small mountain, but it was able to leave marks on Jupiter the same size as of Earth (Bryson, 2003). This shook people out of their complacency.

Sometimes, these chunks crash into each other, and form smaller debris (Schneider, 1990). These debris are now called meteoroids. When pulled into the Earth’s atmosphere due to the Earth’s gravity, they are affected by the intense friction. This results in the glowing of the air surrounding the debris, due to the intense heat (Schneider, 1990). Since it is now inside the Earth’s atmosphere, it is now called a meteor. During this time, much of the meteor is consumed by heat. If the chunk is large enough, some of it might make contact with the Earth’s surface. When this happens, the chunk that remains is called a meteorite (Schneider, 1990).

Through meteorites, asteroids can be studied. Findings have shown that they are roughly 4.5 million years old, and may have been created at roughly the same time as the other parts of the solar system (Jones, 1990). In fact, meteorites have been held responsible for the beginning of life on Earth; at least, the panspermia theory advocates deem it so. The Murchinson meteorite, 4.5 years old, was found to have 74 types of amino acids, and eight of these are responsible for the building of earthly proteins (Bryson, 2003). Asteroids may hold clues to our beginning, as well as our end; it would benefit us greatly if we devoted more time to asteroids.


  1. Bryson, B. (2003). A short history of nearly everything. USA: Broadway Books.
  2. Jones, B. (1990). The practical astronomer. London: Simon & Schuster Inc.
  3. Schneider, H., & Schneider, L. (1990). Dictionary of science for everyone. London:         Bloomsbury Publishing.


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