The Kuiper Belt is an elliptical shaped region of space beyond the orbit of Neptune extending roughly from 30 to 50 astronomical units from the Sun, containing a large number of relatively small icy bodies. The makeup of these Kuiper Belt Objects is similar to the known composition of comets – a combination of frozen water, ammonia and hydrocarbons, such as methane. Due to this, the Kuiper Belt (along with the Oort Cloud) is now believed to be the main source of the short-period comets that are seen within the solar system and which orbit our Sun.
The Kuiper Belt was first discovered in 1992 by astronomers Dave Jewitt and Jane Luu – two scientists who believed that there were more bodies in the outer solar system than had been previously found. Beginning in 1987, they searched the region of space using the University of Hawaii’s 2.2 m telescope looking for faint, slow-moving objects beyond Pluto, which was then still considered a planet and the farthest point of our solar system. After the first Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) was seen from the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii, the belt was named after the Dutch-born astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who had noted that he thought something like it had existed previously in 1951.
Scientists now believe that there are over 70,000 objects in the Kuiper Belt, although astronomers have only confirmed a fraction of these so far. By the year 2004, over 800 Kuiper Belt Objects had been found. Most of these bodies are small, averaging approximately 10-50 km across; however, Pluto, the former planet is now considered to be one of the nearest and largest of these bodies and astronomers are sure they will find bodies as big as the Earth. The other most well-known body, Eris, was discovered to be twice as far as Pluto from the Sun making it the furthest object seen so far in the Solar System, it has also been discovered that Eris has a moon named Dysnomia. Scientists are divided in opinion as to whether Pluto and Eris should be considered the ninth and tenth planets of our solar system; they are currently classed as dwarf planets.
Due to the discovery of the Kuiper Belt, modern day thoughts about the outer solar system and the deep space have been expanded and new goals are now being reached to explore the region and beyond. With each new find, more can be known and predicted about the universe and our place in it. These are exciting times!