New Horizons spacecraft hints Kuiper Belt might stretch much farther out than we thought

NASA’s New Horizons robotic spacecraft, which is currently at the outer edge of our solar system, hints that the Kuiper Belt might stretch much farther out than we thought.

The Kuiper Belt is a disc-shaped region beyond the orbit of Neptune, which was thought to be extended from about 30 to 50 astronomical units from the Sun.

An artist's illustration of the Kuiper Belt
An artist’s illustration of the Kuiper Belt. The dwarf planet Pluto is located within the Kuiper Belt. (Image credit: NASA)

It is made up of millions of icy, rocky leftovers from the formation of our solar system. One astronomical unit (AU) is the average distance from the sun to the earth, i.e., about 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers.

Current position of the New Horizons spacecraft
Current position of the New Horizons spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory)

Currently, the New Horizons spacecraft is about 59 astronomical units away from the sun, beyond the outer edge of the originally thought Kuiper Belt, where the New Horizons’ Venetia instrument is detecting higher than expected levels of dust grains produced by collisions among asteroids, comets, and larger Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs).

The new finding was published in the scientific journal “Astrophysical Journal Letters” on January 25, 2024.

The lead author of the scientific paper, Alex Doner, wrote:

“New Horizons is making the first direct measurements of interplanetary dust far beyond Neptune and Pluto, so every observation could lead to a discovery. The idea that we might have detected an extended Kuiper Belt—with a whole new population of objects colliding and producing more dust—offers another clue in solving the mysteries of the solar system’s most distant regions.”

Now scientists are speculating that the belt may extend to 80 AU or farther and are looking for the possible reasons for the high dust count.

The same results have been found when scientists discovered a number of KBOs far beyond the traditional outer edge of the Kuiper Belt by using the Japanese Subaru Telescope in Hawaii.

The principal investigator of the New Horizons spacecraft from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Alan Stern, wrote:

“These new scientific results from New Horizons may be the first time that any spacecraft has discovered a new population of bodies in our solar system. I can’t wait to see how much farther out these elevated Kuiper Belt dust levels go.”

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft captured the strange-shaped Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth in 2019
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured the strange-shaped Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth in 2019. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko)

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was launched in 2006 to study the dwarf planet Pluto and the Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs). It flew past Pluto in 2015 and the Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth in 2019.

Now the spacecraft is on its extended mission and has sufficient propellant (fuel). Scientists are expecting that the spacecraft will operate through the 2040s and travel beyond 100 astronomical units from the Sun.

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Ashim

Ashim Chandra Sarkar founded Space & Telescope in 2022. He holds a M.Sc. in physics and has five years of research experience in optical astronomy. His passion for astronomy inspired him to open this website. He is responsible for the editorial vision of spaceandtelescope.com.

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