The Kuiper Belt

THE KUIPER BELT

By Varun Bisht

FEBRUARY 2017

It was back in 1951 that Astronomer Gerard Kuiper suggested the existence of
of a belt of asteroids, comets and smaller planets beyond Neptune, that bear the marks of our early solar system. Named after him, the Kuiper Belt lies in the deep expanse of space, spanning approximately 4.5 to 7.5 billion kilometers in width, at a distance of 7500 million kilometers from our sun. Consisting of 3 major dwarf planets, Eris, Ceris and Pluto, this belt of icy cold asteroids has intrigued astronomers ever since it was discovered approximately 18 years ago by a telescope on the sunny island of Hawaii.

A diagram showing the location of the Kuiper Belt in our solar system

But what mystery surrounds this second asteroid belt? As the Kuiper Belt formed alongside our very solar system by space debris orbiting the sun, uninfluenced by the gravity of certain heavy gas planets such as Jupiter, understanding the Kuiper Belt is synonymous to understanding the birth and the early stages of our solar system. One can also say that the only way to truly clasp some of the mysteries of space is by examining some of the asteroids and dwarf planets that call the Kuiper belt their home.

But it is a lot more than the basis of our solar system that has astronomers interested in this icy asteroid belt. It is the possibility of a 9th planet, Planet 9, as it is commonly called, that has grasped the heart of every man behind a high powered telescope. Considered to be at least 20 times further away than Neptune, only the gravitational effects of this planet have been observed yet, as it continues to play with scientists a game of stellar hide and seek.

But over the years, we have also gained more information about the belt than ever before. NASA’s New Horizons probe surveyed Pluto just last year, and aims to push ahead into the deep, dark unknown of the universe we call our home. With new strides made every day in unravelling the mysteries of the Kuiper belt, it is no longer a matter of if, but of when we will fully understand the world beyond our skies.