It’s cold, it’s dark, and it’s home to millions, maybe even billions, of ice-covered chunks of rock. No, it isn’t your driveway in the wintertime; it’s the Kuiper belt, a remote section of our Solar System, beyond the planet Neptune.
The Kuiper belt (Kuiper rhymes with “viper”) was named after astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who believed that a field of small objects existed at the outer edge of our Solar System. Astronomers theorized about this region of space for many decades until, in 1992, University of Hawaii astronomers David Jewitt and Jane Luu found a Kuiper belt Object, 1992 QB1, the first trans-Neptunian object to be discovered since Pluto and its moon, Charon. Since then, at least 800 Kuiper belt objects have been discovered, though that is just a tiny sampling of the countless objects astronomers believe reside there.
The Kuiper belt is located between 30 and 50 Astronomical Units from the Sun. One Astronomical Unit is equal to the distance between the Earth and the Sun – about 92,957,000 miles – so the Kuiper belt begins about 30 Earth distances from the Sun, and extends another 20 Earth distances beyond that!
It contains many different-sized lumps of rock and ice, which are called Kuiper belt objects. The largest of these are dwarf planets, like Pluto, Haumea, and Makemake. Many comets, some of which pass close to the Earth, are also believed to reside in the belt.
Scientists think the Kuiper belt was created by the planet Jupiter while it was still forming. They think the young planet’s gravity hurled the objects out to where they are now.
Jaime McLeod is a longtime journalist who has written for a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites, including MTV.com. She enjoys the outdoors, growing and eating organic food, and is interested in all aspects of natural wellness.