Vermin of the Skies

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Vermin of the Skies
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Attitudes can change. That’s as true in science as in anything else. Today, asteroids are considered some of the most interesting objects in the solar system. But that wasn’t always the case. They went from eagerly sought, to absolutely despised. In fact, one astronomer called them the “vermin of the skies.”

Asteroids are chunks of rock, metal, and ice. Most of them reside in a wide belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Astronomers first began looking for something in that region in the early 1800s. They noted that there was a mathematical progression in the distances between the Sun and the planets. But there was a gap in that sequence between Mars and Jupiter. So they launched a dedicated effort to find something.

The first asteroid was discovered on the first day of the 19th century. Several others soon followed. But there were so many that they eventually became a problem. They streaked across photographs of the sky, ruining some of the pictures. That made them “vermin.”

Today, though, asteroids are a lot more interesting. More than a million of them have been discovered. They’re leftovers from the early solar system, so they hold clues to the formation of Earth and the other planets. They might have brought water to the young Earth. And some of them can pass near Earth, endangering our planet. So it’s important to know as much as we can about them — big boulders that could be much more than just vermin.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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