Kuiper Belt

The Kuiper Belt is Much Bigger Than We Thought

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is just over 8.8 billion km away, exploring the Kuiper Belt. This icy belt surrounds the Sun but it seems to have a surprise up its sleeve. It was expected that New Horizons would be leaving the region by now but it seems that it has detected elevated levels of dust that are thought to be from micrometeorite impacts within the belt. It suggests perhaps that the Kuiper Belt may stretch further from the Sun than we thought! 

The Kuiper Belt is found beyond the orbit of Neptune and is thought to extend out to around 8 billion km. Its existence was first proposed in the mid-20th century by Gerard Kuiper after whom the belt has been named.  It’s home to numerous icy bodies and dwarf planets and offers valuable insight into the formation and evolution of the Solar System. 

Launched by NASA in January 2006 atop an Atlas V rocket, the New Horizon’s spacecraft embarked on its mission to explore the outer Solar System. The primary objective was to perform a close flyby of Pluto, which it did 9.5 years after it launched, and continue on to explore the Kuiper Belt.

New Horizons completed its flyby of Pluto in 2015, and has been travelling through the Kuiper Belt since. As it travels through the outer reachers of the region, almost 60 times the distance from Earth to the Sun, its Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter (SDC) has been counting dust levels. The instrument was constructed by students at the Laboratory for Atmospheric Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder. Throughout New Horizon’s journey, SDC has been monitoring dust levels giving fabulous insight into collision rates among objects in the outer Solar System. 

The New Horizons instrument payload that is currently doing planetary science, heliospheric measurements, and astrophysical observations. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The dust particle detections announced in a recent paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters by lead author Alex Doner are thought to be frozen remains from collisions between larger Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs). The results were a real surprise and challenged the existing models that predicted a decline in dust density and KBO population. It seems that the belt extends many billions of miles beyond the current estimates or maybe even that there is a second belt! 

The results came from data gathered over a three year period during New Horizon’s journey from 45 to 55 astronomical units (where 1 astronomical unit is the average distance between the Sun and Earth). While New Horizon’s was gathering data about dust, observatories such as the 8.2-meter optical-infrared Subaru Telescope in Hawaii have been making discoveries of new KBOs.  Together these findings suggest the Kuiper Belt objects and dust may well extend a further 30 AUs out to about 80 AUs from the Sun. 

New Horizons is now in its extended mission and hopefully has sufficient power and propellant to continue well into the 2040s. At its current velocity that will take the spacecraft out to about 100 AU from the Sun so the research team speculate that the SDC could identify the transition point into interstellar space. 

Source : NASA’s New Horizons Detects Dusty Hints of Extended Kuiper Belt

Mark Thompson

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