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Are Asteroids in the Asteroid Belt Really Packed Together?

According to mainstream space movies, spacecraft pilots struggle greatly in maneuvering their craft due to the condensed asteroids blocking their path within the asteroid belt. But are these asteroid belt depictions really accurate? 

As the average distance between asteroids in the asteroid belt is measured to be nearly a million kilometers, collisions are unlikely to happen as the asteroid belt provides 150 million kilometers worth of space for the asteroids it houses. 

What is an Asteroid? Where Are They Found?

During the 1800s, when scientists initially discovered the existence of asteroids, they assumed they were stars as they had the same appearance. Further studying the newly found star, the experts saw the asteroids’ distinct movement, which differed from stars. And since then, they’ve realized that these rocky objects were an entirely different space object, naming them asteroids, which meant starlike.

Asteroids range in size from pebbles to massive objects with an estimated width of a thousand kilometers. Alike planets, these rocky-metallic bodies also orbit the sun; even though they’re relatively large, they aren’t big enough to be considered planets. Scientists even refer to them as minor planets. (Source: Earthsky

Many experts suggest that these asteroids are remains of the solar system’s formation, but before, many thought that asteroids were remnants of a planet wrecked by the gravity of Jupiter. The asteroid belt, a ring of asteroids situated between Jupiter and Mars’ orbit, houses most of these rocky pieces. Researchers have also identified an existing cluster of asteroids that closely mingle with Earth’s orbit.

Many asteroids have yet to be discovered. Most of these remain undetected due to their miniature size as they’re less than 100 kilometers in width, making them harder to pinpoint. Contrarily, the most substantial known asteroid is Ceres, the first discovered asteroid with a size amounting to 1/4 of the moon. It lies within the asteroid belt and is considered a dwarf planet due to its enormous size. (Source: Cool Cosmos

The True Distance Between Asteroids

In mainstream movies set in space, most usually portray asteroid belts as orbits that aren’t spacecraft friendly due to the densely packed asteroids, making it hard for space travelers to maneuver their craft. Although these may be more fitting for the storyline, these depictions of asteroid belts are far from accurate. 

NASA Ames Researcher David Morrison states that there are hundreds and thousands of asteroids with a width of one kilometer; albeit they may seem big and plenty, they’re well dispersed within the massive space the asteroid belt occupies. The average distance between the asteroids is estimated to be one million kilometers or 600,000 miles. (Source: Scientific American

An astronomical unit is the distance between the Earth and the sun. The diameter of the asteroid belt is measured to be one AU or nearly 150 million kilometers. It’s generally believed that if an individual were to stand on an asteroid within the asteroid belt, they would have few chances of seeing any other asteroid within their proximity due to their distance. (Source: Earthsky

With that said, Morrison further explains that collisions within the asteroid belt rarely happen as a 1-kilometer asteroid only encounters clashing with another every billion years. Spacecraft can then easily navigate their way in the asteroid belt with few to zero chances of collision. (Source: Scientific American

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