"I'm going out for the ride — and to take a look at the bones of Lucifer."
— The Rolling Stones, Robert A. Heinlein
Asteroids come in sizes ranging from dwarf planet down to grit. These numbers are for Ceres, the largest.
The asteroids were predicted before they were found. Two 18th-century astronomers, Johann Titius and Johann Bode, noticed that the spacing of planetary orbits increases in a somewhat regular fashion and came up with a mathematical formula to express this, the Titius-Bode law. Only the law predicts a planet between Mars and Jupiter, and there is none. It also predicted a planet beyond Saturn, though, and when Uranus turned up in the predicted orbit, people went back to the space between Mars and Jupiter to see if they had missed anything.
They had. Ceres was discovered on the first day of the 19th century, 1 January 1801, by Giueppe Piazzi. Pallas, Juno, and Vesta were discovered soon thereafter. We are still discovering asteroids, often by computerized scanning. We ran out of god-names a long time ago. Some are named after girlfriends, pets, favorite desserts... Many just get a number. The world registry of asteroids is at the Kirkwood Observatory, at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.
Asteroids feature in science fiction chiefly as a place for asteroid miners to work, the science-fictional equivalent of gold prospectors of the Wild West. In somewhat earlier science fiction, asteroids were sometimes the remains of a shattered fifth planet (sometimes named "Phaeton" or "Lucifer"), and the story featured survivors from that planet, or their artifacts, or it was set on the fifth planet during its last days — an astronomical equivalent of drowned Atlantis.
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2012