What is the Kuiper Belt? | Ask Dr. Universe

What is the Kuiper Belt? -Zaara, 7, Deep Bay, Australia

  • Sunday, May 8, 2016 2:46pm
  • Life

Dr. Universe explores the Kuiper Belt. Submitted image.

What is the Kuiper Belt? -Zaara, 7, Deep Bay, Australia

Dear Zaara,

You might say the Kuiper Belt is the frozen frontier of our solar system. Out beyond Neptune’s chilly orbit, this saucer-shaped region is home to Pluto, billions of comets, and other icy worlds.

“The Kuiper Belt is really the edge of knowledge,” said my friend and astronomy professor Guy Worthey when we met up in the Washington State University planetarium.

“Out there it’s a little dim,” Worthey said. “We are pretty far from the Sun.”

In fact, it’s about 3 billion miles away. Even at the speed of a jet airplane, it would take more than 680 years to travel from Earth to the outer solar system. Fortunately, spacecraft like NASA’s New Horizons can get there much faster.

Just last year, the world watched as New Horizons flew past Pluto and sent us the first up-close pictures of the dwarf planet. Now, it won’t be long before we head even deeper into the Kuiper Belt.

“Everything is going to be dark,” Worthey said. “But you’ll see these icy bodies. They’ll be of different sizes. There’ll be lots of little ones and some big ones.”

Many astronomers think there are 100,000 objects out there bigger than 60 miles wide, Worthey adds.

“They are sort of a dirty snowball composition,” Worthey said.

Just 15 years ago astronomers weren’t really sure if this part of the solar system even existed.

In the 1950s, Gerard Kuiper (KI-purr), a Dutch astronomer, was curious about comets, particularly where they were coming from and how they traveled through the solar system. He thought the outer solar system just couldn’t be empty.

About 40 years later, two scientists working at an observatory in Hawaii detected the first object in the Kuiper Belt aside from Pluto and its moon Charon. They had been looking for five years when they finally found an ice sphere more than 150 miles wide.

Ever since, astronomers have been using math and science to detect other distant objects. They’ve detected other dwarf planets like Pluto, including Eris, Haumea, and Makemake.

They’ve also found Plutinos that, like Pluto, are small worlds that have been caught in Neptune’s orbit.

“As you cruise by one of those things, they’ll look like spheres or worlds,” Worthey said. “They are quiet, they are on slow orbits.”

Astronomers are fascinated with these places for a couple of reasons. One is because the region may hold clues about the way solar systems form. Other scientists are particularly interested in the comets. Some wonder if some of these icy objects fell from the Kuiper Belt, and then melted in the Sun’s heat to form Earth’s oceans.

There’s also been a buzz about finding a new ninth planet in the Kuiper Belt or beyond. Though, there’s no proof of it yet, it’s an exciting prospect. If there is another planet in the Kuiper Belt, we’ll have to go find it with a spacecraft or a super huge, powerful telescope.

Sincerely,

Dr. Universe

More in Life

Get your fill of winter activities on Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier’s landscape undergoes a dramatic transformation in winter.

Bonney Lake, Sumner gear up for holiday festivities

Plateau holiday festivities are right around the corner.

Enumclaw, Buckley busy during the holidays

What’s going on during the holiday season on the Plateau? Here’s a list of activities you and your family may enjoy!

Giving Trees help kids with Christmas

Nexus Youth And Families Enumclaw is asking local residents to help a child in need this Christmas by participating in the organization’s Giving Tree program.

Art display by local teachers, students

For the next month, the city of Enumclaw, 4Culture of King County and Arts Alive! will present an exhibition of current works by students of local art class teachers.

Surplus van benefits Enumclaw seniors

A surplus Metro Transit van was donated last week to the Enumclaw Senior Center to assist the facility in meeting a variety of transportation needs.

Preventing a Hepatitis A outbreak | Public Health Insider

Hepatitis A is a liver disease caused by a highly contagious virus. A large outbreak in San Diego, along with outbreaks in Los Angeles and in Salt Lake City has Public Health officials concerned that a hepatitis A outbreak could occur in King County. Dr. Jeff Duchin, King County’s Health Officer, explains who’s at risk and what can be done to prevent an outbreak.

Rescue group aims to save dogs’ lives; Saturday fun run will benefit the cause

All great dogs end with a tail, but this great tale begins with a dog.

Annual quilt show coming to Expo Center

The Crystal Quilters are preparing for a return to the Enumclaw Expo Center, getting ready for their 22nd annual quilt show.

Scottish Country dancers return to Enumclaw for 23rd year

For more than two decades, this group of dancers — now led by Jim and Pat McDonald — has been encouraging people from all over South King County and East Pierce County to learn more about their Scottish heritage or, barring a clan bloodline, to just get out and try something new.

Learn to compost with some red wrigglers

The Dinkelman Worm Farm is hosting a vermiculture demonstration — or the cultivation of earth worms — at the Delvin Farms Good For All Plants event next weekend to help people create compost in their own homes to help benefit their gardens or farms.

Free series provides insight from expert on death, dying

As a funeral home director in the 1980s, Duane Weeks began wondering why people weren’t dealing with death very well.