Asteroids are minor planets, especially of the inner Solar System. Larger asteroids have also been called planetoids. These terms have historically been applied to any astronomical object orbiting the Sun that did not resolve into a disc in a telescope and was not observed to have characteristics of an active comet such as a tail. As minor planets in the outer Solar System were discovered that were found to have volatile-rich surfaces similar to comets, these came to be distinguished from the objects found in the main asteroid belt. In this article, the term "asteroid" refers to the minor planets of the inner Solar System, including those co-orbital with Jupiter.
Millions of asteroids exist, many the shattered remnants of planetesimals, bodies within the young Sun's solar nebula that never grew large enough to become planets. The vast majority of known asteroids orbit within the main asteroid belt located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, or are co-orbital with Jupiter (the Jupiter trojans). However, other orbital families exist with significant populations, including the near-Earth objects. Individual asteroids are classified by their characteristic spectra, with the majority falling into three main groups: C-type, M-type, and S-type. These were named after and are generally identified with carbon-rich, metallic, and silicate (stony) compositions, respectively. The sizes of asteroids varies greatly; the largest, Ceres, is almost 1,000 km (600 mi) across and massive enough to qualify as a dwarf planet.
Asteroids are somewhat arbitrarily differentiated from comets and meteoroids. In the case of comets, the difference is one of composition: while asteroids are mainly composed of mineral and rock, comets are primarily composed of dust and ice. Furthermore, asteroids formed closer to the sun, preventing the development of cometary ice. The difference between asteroids and meteoroids is mainly one of size: meteoroids have a diameter of one meter or less, whereas asteroids have a diameter of greater than one meter. Finally, meteoroids can be composed of either cometary or asteroidal materials.Only one asteroid, 4 Vesta, which has a relatively reflective surface, is normally visible to the naked eye, and this only in very dark skies when it is favorably positioned. Rarely, small asteroids passing close to Earth may be visible to the naked eye for a short time. As of March 2020, the Minor Planet Center had data on 930,000 minor planets in the inner and outer Solar System, of which about 545,000 had enough information to be given numbered designations.The United Nations declared 30 June as International Asteroid Day to educate the public about asteroids. The date of International Asteroid Day commemorates the anniversary of the Tunguska asteroid impact over Siberia, Russian Federation, on 30 June 1908.In April 2018, the B612 Foundation reported "It is 100 percent certain we'll be hit [by a devastating asteroid], but we're not 100 percent sure when." Also in 2018, physicist Stephen Hawking,
in his final book Brief Answers to the Big Questions, considered an asteroid collision to be the biggest threat to the planet. In June 2018, the US National Science and Technology Council warned that America is unprepared for an asteroid impact event, and has developed and released the "National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy Action Plan" to better prepare. According to expert testimony in the United States Congress in 2013, NASA would require at least five years of preparation before a mission to intercept an asteroid could be launched.