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The Kuiper Belt: Home To The Dwarf Planets

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Science & Tech no image

Published on May 8th, 2013 | by Yellow Magpie


The Kuiper Belt: Home To The Dwarf Planets

The Kuiper Belt Dwarf Planets Photo By NASA

The Kuiper Belt is an enormous collection of what are known as Kuiper Belt objects. Containing many large bodies of frozen material, the region is also a full-time home to seven dwarf planets one of which is the famous former planet Pluto.

Physical Characteristics Of The Kuiper Belt

The Kuiper Belt is a vast expanse that is between 30 and 50 Astronomical Units (AU). One AU is the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

To give you an idea of this scale, it takes light over eight minutes to cover the distance between our home planet and the Sun travelling at a speed of nearly 300,000 kilometres per second (186,000 miles). To get from the Sun to the far reaches of the Kuiper Belt takes light nearly six hours and 40 minutes.

The Kuiper Belt (Green) Creative Commons ShareAlike License

The Kuiper Belt is a frozen wasteland with temperatures averaging 50 degrees Kelvin (minus 220 degrees Celsius.) Structurally the Kuiper Belt resembles a torus or a flattened doughnut. It is mainly composed of ammonia, methane and frozen water.

Theory Becomes Reality

The dwarf planet Pluto was originally discovered in 1930 by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh. Thirteen years later another astronomer, Kenneth Edgeworth, put forward a hypothesis that material beyond Neptune had too great an area to coalesce into planets. He believed that instead smaller bodies would have formed.

Gerard Kuiper, a Dutch astronomer, first proposed that a large collection of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune were present during the early Solar System.

Kuiper erroneously speculated that Pluto was an Earth-sized object. From this extrapolation he believed that the dwarf planet had cleared all the smaller bodies from the trans-neptunian part of the Solar System.

For the guts of nearly five decades the Kuiper Belt had remained an unproven theory. In the late 1980’s, as technology advanced, trans-neptunian objects were continually discovered.

We now know that Pluto is in fact very small in comparison to the Earth and the small bodies in this region of Space still exist. The Kuiper Belt was named after Gerard Kuiper.

The Kuiper Belt Artists Impression Of A Trans-Neptunian Object Photo By NASA

The Origins Of The Kuiper Belt

The Kuiper Belt is thought to have formed from an accretion disc orbiting the Sun during the early Solar System. The belt is believed to be the remnants of the Solar System that failed to accumulate into planets.

Nevertheless, there are some inconsistencies in the computer predictions. Models forecast that the total mass of the Kuiper Belt should be 30 times that of the Earth. In reality, it is only somewhere between one/tenth and 1/25th the mass of our home planet.

This has caused much speculation. One hypothesis put forward is that a passing star caused much of the mass of the Kuiper Belt to be lost beyond the confines of the Solar System. Other ideas are less dramatic such as the gradual grinding of objects into particles light-enough to be blown away by the solar winds.

Highly Recommended Reading

Check out Yellow Magpie’s Planet Neptune: The Mysterious Azure-Blue for more insight into the largest planet in the Solar System.

You may also wish to take a gander at The Solar System And Beyond: A Guide To The Cosmos.

Cosmos is a highly recommended book. It contains large, full-page pictures of the asteroids and writing on the subject by the highly competent author, Giles Sparrow.

For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom, you can access: Cosmos from here.

For those who live in Canada, you can obtain: Cosmos here.

For Germany: Cosmos.

For France: Cosmos.

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