The Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud

The history of physics from ancient times to the modern day, focusing on space and time. Pluto was discovered by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. It was first thought to be a planet, but like the planets in the asteroid belt, it was later found to be part of a larger object. Pluto is part of the Kuiper belt, and other icy objects are found beyond this in the Oort cloud.

Last updated on 5th June 2017 by Dr Helen Klus

1. The Kuiper belt

The Kuiper belt is a belt of asteroids and comets that extends from the orbit of Neptune, at about 30 AU, to over 55 AU (one AU is the distance between the Earth and the Sun). Short-period comets, however, can travel up to 100 AU from the Sun, into a region known as the scattered disc. Short-period comets are comets that reappear within 200 years, like Halley's Comet, which has a period of about 76 years[1][2a].

The Kuiper belt was theorised shortly after the discovery of Pluto, and is named after Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who discussed the idea in 1951[3]. The first Kuiper belt objects were detected by British astronomer David Jewitt, and Vietnamese-American astronomer Jane Luu, in 1992[4]. The Kuiper belt is now thought to contain hundreds of thousands of objects over 100 km in diameter[2b], and over 1000 of these have been catalogued[5].

The Kuiper belt and scattered disc contain at least four dwarf planets: Pluto, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake[2c]. The closest is Pluto, which was discovered by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh and his colleagues in 1930[6], and demoted from planetary status in 2006[7].

Photograph of Pluto.

Pluto, image from New Horizons. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/Public domain.

Photograph of Charon.

Charon, image from New Horizons. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/Public domain.

Pluto is mostly composed of rock and ice. Its mass is about one-sixth of the Earth's Moon, and it has an eccentric orbit, which sometimes takes it closer to the Sun than Neptune. Pluto has at least five moons, including Nix, Hydra, and Charon. Charon is the largest, with a diameter over half the size of Pluto's[8].

Diagram of objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, where sizes are to scale.

The Earth, and objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, sizes are to scale. Image credit: NASA/Lexicon/CC-SA.

The Pioneer and Voyager probes all passed through the Kuiper belt but did not get close to any large objects[9]. The first spacecraft sent to explore the Kuiper belt, NASA's New Horizons, was launched in 2006, and arrived at Pluto in 2015. Data from the New Horizons space probe has shown that Pluto is geologically active, and contains ice plains, flowing ice, and mountains[10].

There have been a number of missions to both short and long-period comets, including the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Rosetta mission, which involved landing on the short-period comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014[11].

2. The Oort cloud

The Oort cloud is a spherical cloud of comets that orbit between about 5000 AU and 100,000 AU. This is over 1.5 light-years, 2000 times further than the edge of the Kuiper belt, and a third of the distance to the closest extrasolar star, Proxima Centauri[12].

Diagram showing the Oort cloud, the Kuiper belt is deep inside, and the planets orbit the Sun from within the Kuiper belt.

Image credit: NASA/Public domain.

Oort cloud objects are thought to be composed of frozen water, ammonia, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and methane. They can be affected by the gravitational force of nearby stars, and this sometimes sends them towards the centre of the Solar System[13].

In 1932, Estonian astronomer Ernst Öpik suggested that long-period comets, such as Hale-Bopp, which has a period of over 2500 years, may originate from the Oort Cloud[14]. Dutch astronomer Jan Oort extended this idea in 1950[15].

There have been no missions to long-period comets, and the Oort cloud is so far away that the Pioneer, Voyager, and New Horizons probes will not pass into it for hundreds of years.

3. References

  1. NASA, 'The Cosmic Distance Scale', last accessed 01-06-17.

  2. (a, b, c) NASA, 'Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud', last accessed 01-06-17.

  3. Kuiper, G. P. and Hynek, J. A. (ed), 1951, 'Origin of the Solar system' in 'Astrophysics: a topical symposium commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Yerkes Observatory and a half century of progress in astrophysics', McGraw-Hill.

  4. Jewitt, D., Luu, J., and Marsden, B. G., 1992, '1992 QB1', International Astronomical Union Circular, 5611.

  5. IAU Minor Planet Center, 'List Of Transneptunian Objects', last accessed 01-06-17.

  6. Slipher, V. M., 1930, 'Planet X-Lowell Observatory Observation Circular', Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, 24, pp.282.

  7. IAU, 'IAU 2006 General Assembly: Result of the IAU Resolution votes', last accessed 01-06-17.

  8. NASA, 'Pluto: In Depth', last accessed 01-06-17.

  9. NASA, 'Relative Positions of Distant Spacecraft', last accessed 01-06-17.

  10. NASA, 'New Horizons', last accessed 01-06-17.

  11. ESA, 'Rosetta', last accessed 01-06-17.

  12. NASA, 'Oort Cloud: In Depth', last accessed 01-06-17.

  13. NASA, 'Small Worlds - The Neighborhood: Comets', last accessed 01-06-17.

  14. Öpik, E., 1932, 'Note on stellar perturbations of nearly parabolic orbits', Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 67, pp.169-183.

  15. Oort, J. H., 1950, 'The structure of the cloud of comets surrounding the Solar System and a hypothesis concerning its origin', Bulletin of the Astronomical Institutes of the Netherlands, 11, pp.91-110.

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The Star Garden is a science news and science education website run by Dr Helen Klus.

How we came to know the cosmos covers the history of physics focusing on space and time, light and matter, and the mind. It explains the simple discoveries we made in prehistoric times, and how we built on them, little by little, until the conclusions of modern theories seem inevitable. This is shown in a timeline of the universe.

The Star Garden covers the basics for KS3, KS4, and KS5 science revision including SATs, GCSE science, and A-level physics.

Space & Time

Pre 20th Century theories

1. History of Constellations

2. History of Latitude

3. History of Longitude

4. Models of the Universe

5. Force and Energy

6. Newton's theory of Gravity

7. Age of the Universe

20th Century discoveries

1. Special Relativity

2. General Relativity

3. Big Bang theory

4. History of Galaxies

5. Life Cycles of Stars

6. Red Giants and White Dwarfs

7. Neutron Stars and Black Holes

Missions to planets

1. The planet Mercury

2. The planet Venus

3. The planet Earth

3.1 The Earth's Moon

4. The planet Mars

4.1 The Asteroid Belt

5. The planet Jupiter

6. The planet Saturn

7. The planet Uranus

8. The planet Neptune

Beyond the planets

1. Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud

2. Pioneer and Voyager

3. Discoveries of Exoplanets