Asteroids are the oldest, most pristine samples of our early solar system and hold clues about how the current lineup of planets formed from what was once a giant cloud of gas and dust. This plot of roughly 45,000 asteroids that orbit between Mars and Jupiter reveals “families” of asteroids that share characteristics such as chemical composition (colors), orbit size (horizontal axis) and orbit tilt (vertical axis). Rocks with the same chemical composition tend to have similar orbital characteristics, which suggests a common origin—most likely a single larger body. These bodies probably broke up when they collided at high speed with other large asteroids in the crowded asteroid belt, says astronomer Jake VanderPlas of the University of Washington. (He and a team led by fellow Washington astronomer eljko Ivezi´c designed the plot on this page.) The extreme violence of those crashes, it turns out, is not enough to completely sever asteroid family ties.

For more from Jake VanderPlas on data visualization in the service of astronomical research, see