In our galaxy, far, far, away, lies the Kuiper Belt. Located beyond Neptune’s orbit, the Kuiper Belt is a donut-shaped ring of icy bodies. We know little about the Kuiper Belt; New Horizons, launched in 2006, was the first NASA mission to study the region in depth. Astronomers do know that the Kuiper Belt is inhabited by hundreds of thousands of bodies, among them short-period comets, the planet Pluto, and a hypothetical Planet 9. Let’s do our own quick flyby of the Kuiper Belt. Remember to bring your jacket; it’s cold out there!
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DAVID JEWITT AND JANE LUU
The existence of the Kuiper Belt was first proposed in 1943 by Kenneth Edgeworth. In 1951 Gerald Kuiper predicted that such a region would lie beyond Neptune’s orbit. It wasn’t until 1992, however, that the first Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) was identified. David Jewitt and Jane Luu used a blink comparator, a device that compares differences in brightness between photographs of the night sky, to find KBOs. The automatization of this process through the use of charge-coupled devices made the search much faster.
Cubewanos are a nickname for classical Kuiper Belt Objects, based on the name given to the first Kuiper Belt object: “QB1-o.” Cubewanos do not have orbital resonance with Neptune, meaning that their orbits are not influenced by Neptune. The largest known cubewano is the dwarf planet Makemake.
Although cubewanos do not have orbital resonance with Neptune, many objects in the Kuiper Belt do. Resonances vary, with some KBOs exhibiting a 1:2 resonance ratio, meaning they perform half an orbit of the sun for each complete revolution of Neptune. Such objects are called twotinos. The Kuiper Cliff refers to the sudden drop-off in KBOs beyond the 1:2 resonance region. Scientists are unsure if this means that the Kuiper Belt ends here, the objects beyond this point are too small to detect, or some hypothetical planet other than Neptune is influencing KBO orbits.
Centaurs are small bodies found between Jupiter and Neptune. Centaurs are thought to have originated either in the Kuiper Belt or a similar region overlapping part of the Kuiper Belt called the scattered disc. Astronomers believe that centaurs are in the process of exiting the solar system or transitioning from KBOs to comets orbiting Jupiter.
Short-period comets take less than 200 years to complete an orbit of the Sun. These comets originate in the Kuiper Belt and contrast with long-period comets, which begin in the far more distant Oort Cloud.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
Check out this site to learn more about the New Horizons mission.
Interested in how our understanding of the Kuiper Belt developed? Read this article to discover how Jewitt and Luu found the first KBO.
Why exactly was Pluto, the Kuiper Belt’s best-known resident, downgraded from planet status? (We miss you, Pluto!)
What mysteries are hidden within the Kuiper Belt? (The Shadow doesn’t know...but we have some guesses!)
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