Discovery of the Kuiper Belt

How far can you get in 43 years traveling at 38,000 miles per hour?  Far enough to make it through the Kuiper belt.  Both Voyagers 1 and 2 have passed through the Kuiper belt but to be clear, their trajectories took them through the thinner sections.  Like the asteroid belt, the Kuiper belt is open disc-shaped, think of Saturn’s rings.  There is more belt extent parallel with the belt’s plane than perpendicular to it.  Thin and wide.  No matter, they both have traveled far enough to pass out of the wide part too.

We have the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and the Kuiper belt out beyond Neptune.  Do you wonder if the same processes that formed the asteroid belt came into play with the Kuiper Belt?  Well, many astronomers are currently searching for a Uranus-mass object out there.  See my articles on planet X.  Most astronomers theorize that the primordial solar system that far out was too sparse for planets to form.  The Kuiper belt is about 20 times wider and up to 200 times more massive than the asteroid belt.  But that’s still not a whole lotta mass, the asteroid belt’s total mass doesn’t quite add up to our Moon’s mass.

Frederick C. Leonard at UCLA in 1930 was the first to suggest a belt of objects beyond Neptune.  This led to discoveries of comets and other small objects between the orbits of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, now called centaurs, but nothing beyond Pluto (which was a planet at that time).  As with most scientific endeavors much time, study, observation, and help with improving technology was required to make progress.

In 1992 a team from the University of Hawaii (David Jewitt and Jane Lulu) found something beyond Pluto.  They named it 1992 QB1, eventually getting the designation 15760 Albion. Stepping back in time, this team started their investigation in 1987 at MIT, with Lulu being Jewitt’s graduate student.  They continued their study at the University of Hawaii in 1988, using improved CCD technology that allowed them to process more in a shorter time.  So, they spent about 5 years of painstaking observation and it paid off.  It was a huge discovery!

Once the discovery was made, many more followed and the Kuiper belt became a reality.  We now know its objects consist mostly of frozen volatiles (methane, ammonia, water) …think comets.  It also has some larger objects, dwarf planets Pluto, Haumea, and Makemake. Like the asteroid belt, Kuiper belt objects orbits are stable.

What about Kuiper?  Well, Dutch astronomer Gerard Kuiper had written about the possibility of a collection of objects beyond Pluto but did not believe it really existed.  Go figure.

What’s in the Sky?

October 29; 1 hour after sunset; east:  A bright Moon and bright Mars are close

October 31; evening; east: October’s second full Moon, a “Blue Moon”, Hunter’s (Harvest) Moon

November 01; 2am:  Daylight Savings Time ends