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Astronomers Find a Dozen Unexpected Space Objects Way Outside the Kuiper Belt
They're roughly twice as far away as Pluto!
The space travel presented in SYFY's The Ark (streaming now on Peacock) makes our real world space travel look like little more than stepping onto our own front porch. Not content just to go to the Moon or to Mars, the crew of The Ark One embark on a journey to Proxima centauri, the star next door. On their way out of the solar system, the crew would have had an opportunity (were they not sleeping in stasis at the time) to see the farthest boundaries of our celestial neighborhood up close. And, according to recent analysis of archival data, the solar system might be wider than we previously thought.
Astronomers Find Unexpected Objects Beyond the Kuiper Belt
Stuck here on Earth, modern astronomers rely on telescopes on the ground and in space to peer billions of miles across space at the relatively tiny objects at the fringes of the solar system. If you turn a telescope toward the sky, tracing a line toward the system’s exterior, you’re going to pass by a number of familiar sights. First, we have the rocky planets (you may have heard of them), followed by the asteroid belt, the gas giants, the ice giants, Pluto and a few other dwarf planets, and the Kuiper Belt.
That takes care of everything out to about 50 astronomical units (AU), the average distance between the Earth and Sun, approximately 93 million miles. Beyond that, there’s mostly empty space and a handful of spacecraft including Voyager and New Horizons.
It’s actually one of the things that makes our solar system unusual in the cosmos. Many other planetary systems have exterior belts which extend significantly farther from the parent star than 50 AU. That’s part of the reason astronomers wanted to look and see if there was something we had missed.
They used artificial intelligence to sift through archival data from the Subaru Telescope on Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano in search of distant, previously undiscovered objects. When the search was completed, researchers turned up a dozen objects orbiting beyond 60 AU, nearly a billion miles beyond where the Kuiper belt is believed to end. The findings were presented at the 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, but have not yet been peer reviewed or published.
As such, the wider scientific community is intrigued but withholding judgement until the data can be reviewed and calculated. Assuming it holds up to scientific scrutiny, it could mean that the Kuiper belt is simply wider than we thought and extends beyond 60 AU. Strangely, though, researchers didn’t find anything between 50 and 60 AU, suggesting a potential gap between two distinct belts. But the sample size of identified objects is staggeringly small and it’s difficult to make any concrete conclusions.
The findings are supported, however, by observations from the New Horizons space probe. Astronomers expected levels of space dust to diminish rapidly once the spacecraft left the Kuiper belt, but that didn’t happen. The higher than anticipated dust levels could be created by larger objects smashing into one another, suggesting a larger population of space rocks.
At present, New Horizons is at a distance of approximately 57 AU and still racing out of the solar system. Scientists expect it to crest to 60 AU in October 2024, at which point it might be able to visit one of these strange and lonely space rocks to find out what’s going on out there.
Don’t get bored waiting for New Horizons to cross the distance, catch the complete first season of The Ark, streaming now on Peacock!