In the outer Solar Sytem there is a zone which is known as the Kuiper belt. It orbits around the sun and receives its name in honour to the Ducth-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper who predicted the existence of this belt in 1951 but…what is exactly the Kuiper belt ? What is the relation between the Kuiper belt and Pluto?
In 1930, Kenneth Edgeworth suggested the idea that there was a group of bodies beyond Neptune besides Pluto ( which was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh the same year) . Then in 1951, Gerard Kuiper rekindle that idea in his investigations.
NASA´s Pioneer 10 spacecraft entered to an area beyond Neptune in 1983 but did not explore it. Despite all these assumptions about the Kuiper belt, it was until 1992 when David Jewitt and Jane Lu officially confirmed its existence thanks to the technology advances in telescopes.
Fourteen years later (2006), the NASA sent the first spacecraft to explore the Kuiper belt and Pluto in a mission named New Horizons. In 2015, the device arrived to that area. In 2016 we finally saw a Pluto´s photo and in 2019 we were able to observe an image about a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) for the first time. That KBO is named 2014 MU69 but is better known as Ultima Thule.
What is the Kuiper belt like?
The Kuiper belt is an area located in the outer Solar System and its distance from the sun is like going from earth to sun 30 times! This means it is far away from the sun and that’s basically why in the belt you may see frozen volatiles popular known as KBO´s or Trans neptunian objects (TNO´s) and other icy objects.
The Kuiper belt´s inner edge starts at Neptuno´s orbit and as we were saying, it is mainly formed by frosty bodies that are smaller than the moon that orbits around Earth despite the fact that some of them are planets such as Pluto.
Astronomers think that the objects found there, may be leftovers from the Big Bang explosion which originates the universe but were affected by Neptune’s gravitational influence and that’s why they are dispersed. According to the NASA, there is where some comets come.
Scientists believe that the study of the Kuiper Belt may help us to understand more about how planets are formed and the way they migrate. Alan Steirn said: “We have firm evidence that many KBOs (including some large ones like Pluto), were born much closer to the Sun, in the region where the giant planets now orbit.”
Even though the Kuiper belt may be confused and compared with the Asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter, the main difference relays in the kind of rocks. All Kuiper belt´s asteroids are icy while in the Asteroid belt the main components are metal and rock.
There are two kinds of asteroids in the Kuiper belt: dynamically cold population and dynamically hot population. It is important to highlight that the names are not related to the temperature, they were classified according to their analogy with gas particulas.
What can I find in the Kuiper belt?
In the Kupper belt you can find asteroids,KBO´s, TNO´s, moons and dwarf planets. The biggest planet is Pluto (2300 kilometers wide) and has five moons around it:Charon, Kerberos, Styx, Nix and Hydra.
As we were saying, the temperature in the belt is very freezing so Puto´s temperature is commonly between -240 and -218 Celcius grades. Pluto is composed by methane, nitrogen ice, carbon monoxide and water.Then it is not surprising to find cryovolcanoes ( volcanoes that throw ice instead of lava).
There are other dwarf planets smaller than Pluto in the Kuiper Belt such as Haumea Makemake and Eris. Like Pluto, these planets also have their own moons; Haumea has two (Namaka and Hi´iaka), Makemake has one (Mk2) as well as Eris (Dysnomia).
Just to compare Earth with the dwarf planets previously mentioned, check the following data which corresponds to the radius of each planet:
Earth: 6,371 kilometers
Eris: 1,163 kilometers
Makemake: 715 kilometers
Haumea: 620 kilometers
Is there something beyond the Kuiper Belt?
In 1950 Jan Hendrik Oort, based on his observations, proposed the idea that there is something beyond the Kuiper belt. That zone was named the Oort cloud but it has not been researched as it is too far to be observed by telescopes. Maybe in the future we will know more about Oort.
Due to New Horizons´ research, we have more precise information about the Kuiper belt and Pluto and we are sure that in the coming years more relevant information will be discovered.
Meanwhile let’s be on the lookout of new NASA discoveries and continue reading ouR articles so that you can be well informed.