The Kuiper Belt is one of the largest celestial structures, coming second to only the Oort Cloud, and the heliosphere and magnetosphere of Jupiter. It is believed to be an icy space to exist beyond Neptune. Many trillions of stars are guessed to exist here.
The History of Kuiper Belt
Kenneth Edgeworth had suggested in as early as 1943 the possibility of larger bodies exist beyond Neptune. Later, in 1951, Gerard Kuiper had predicted the existence of a pair of icy objects beyond Neptune. When 1992, the Kuiper belt was actually discovered by the two astronomers, Dave Jewitt and Jane Luu, the belts were named after the first pair of people to have predicted their existence. They are called the Kuiper Belt or the Edgeworth Kuiper Belt. Since its discovery, various new celestial objects and planets are supposed to have existed in this region.
During the formation of the Solar System, the dust and gas which either did not go into the formation of the Sun and planets or did not move out of the system largely remained in their place of origin. The mass was huge enough and the gravitational pull of any planet could not affect it. The Kuiper belt and the Oort Cloud are said to have existed since the formation of the Solar system. Even the gravitational pull of the Sun could not affect it.
Some scientists have speculated that it may have actually formed in close proximity to the Sun and has eventually shifted farther away from it when planets have moved farther away from the Sun. There is an estimate of a thousand celestial bodies orbiting around the Sun in this region, most of whom are comets. The existence of dwarf planets has also been detected. They are too small for consideration as a proper planet but huge enough for an asteroid.
What is in the Kuiper Belt?
Pluto was the first object to have been discovered in the Kuiper belt in 1930. With the discovery of the Kuiper belt itself, scientists reconsidered Pluto’s status as a planet. They realized that everything that exists beyond Neptune is nothing but icy remnants of the universe that could not take part in the making of the Solar System. Sedna is another celestial object to have been discovered in the Kuiper belt in 2004. It is three-fourths the size of Pluto and takes about 10,500 years to make one round around its orbit. Another Kuiper belt object was discovered right in the next year, Eris. It is just a little smaller in size in comparison to Pluto.
It takes 580 years to orbit around the Sun. in 2006, Pluto, Eris, and Ceres, which were considered the largest asteroid till then, were reassigned the status of the dwarf planets. Haumea and Makemake were some other dwarf planets to have been discovered in 2008. The Kuiper belt objects are all so small in size that they might have been able to come together to form a planet. However, Neptune’s gravitational pull must have hindered their possibility of coalescing into one. There are more than 2,000 objects existing in the belt, and it is not only the beginning.
Facts about the Kuiper Belt
Astronomers make various assumptions regarding the Kuiper belt and try to find evidence regarding the same. Initially, they had considered it very similar to the belt of asteroids that exist around Jupiter. Both the Kuiper belt and the Oort Cloud are considered to be the source of origin of comets. They share similar characteristics but are two distinct phenomena. The Oort Cloud surrounds the Solar System, the Kuiper Belt extends not as far as that. Research suggests that the shifting orbits of the four giant planets- Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune might have caused the loss of most of the existing original material that existed in it since its formation.
The objects in the Kuiper Belt are in a continuous process of collision and formation. Most of the original objects may have ceased to exist, but newer objects are coming into existence with each passing day. However, the formation of comets arises from the continuous collision that takes place between the various Kuiper Belt objects. The Oort Cloud is the site for the formation of long-period comets.
The Kuiper Objects are supposed to either have moons orbiting them, or they are binary objects themselves. Binaries are the pairing of two similarly shaped objects that orbit around a given mass between them. Pluto, Eris, and Haumea are considered to have moons of their own. When Pluto was discovered, it was considered an alone planet given its oddly tilted orbit. It took 62 years since its discovery to finally gauge the presence of such similar objects. It took the discovery of the second Kuiper Belt object to finally realize that a long chain of similar objects exists out there, waiting to be discovered.
NASA and the Kuiper Belt
NASA’s Pioneer 10 Spacecraft was the first to ever enter the Kuiper Belt in 1983. No other Kuiper belt object other than Pluto had been discovered back then. Hence, it had not been of much use. Later, Voyager 2 had visited Pluto’s moon Triton in 2004. NASA’s New Horizon was the first spacecraft to have actually visited a Kuiper belt object and has passed by MU69, a Kuiper Belt object to having been discovered in 2014.
There remains so much more to discover regarding it and its far-reaching extent. There are numerous upcoming discoveries as astronomers launch spacecraft into the all-engulfing space. The Kuiper belt objects are constantly colliding and forming newer objects on their own. Why the Kuiper belt works the way it does, what exactly led to its formation, and are there any other such objects in the universe remotely similar to it are some of the questions that scientists are still working on. With each passing day, newer objects come to the realm of knowledge, making it all the more confusing, yet intriguing. The Kuiper Belt is a wonder on the face of the universe, that something like this could form and sustain itself despite all the gravitational pull that worked on these objects for light-years.