Dozens of objects discovered in the void on the outskirts of the solar system: there may be something unprecedented
Dozens of objects have been discovered beyond the Kuiper belt, which is located on the edge of the solar system, and their existence may indicate either that scientists were wrong about the size of the belt or that its "twin" exists even further in the depths of our system.
Science reports on the discovery, which has not yet been peer-reviewed by the scientific community and is only being prepared for publication. Scientists say the discovery of the new belt will be "extremely exciting."
The Kuiper belt is an array of small icy objects, the most famous of which is Pluto. The belt is located on the outskirts of the solar system beyond the orbit of Neptune. It stretches for 50 astronomical units (AU) - 50 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun - and then suddenly ends. Instead, observations of other systems show that such belts extend for hundreds of AU.
Now, scientists using ground-based telescopes to search for new targets for NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which is currently flying past Pluto on its way out of the solar system, have discovered about a dozen objects that are beyond 60 AU.
If the discovery turns out to be true, it may indicate that the Kuiper belt either extends much further than previously thought, or there is a second belt that no one knew about before.
The scientists' discovery is partially confirmed by data from the NASA spacecraft, which is now located at a distance of 57 AU from the Kuiper belt. Many of its instruments are in sleep mode, but the dust counter continues to work continuously. Dust in space is formed as a result of the collision of planetary bodies, and therefore it was expected that the amount of dust would decrease dramatically outside the Kuiper belt.
Instead, the data show that "the number of collisions is not decreasing."
"And the simplest explanation for that is that there's something else out there that we haven't discovered," said Alan Stern, the mission's principal investigator and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute.
Astronomers are intrigued by their colleagues' discovery, but say they should not jump to preliminary conclusions and want to see more evidence.
"If the new belt really exists, it's an extremely exciting thing," said Pedro Bernardinelli of the University of Washington.
However, he recalls that previous studies have found only one object outside of 50 AU.
"Why don't we see these objects? Is everyone unlucky? It's possible, but it's hard," Bernardinelli said.
Stern explained that the 12 distant objects were discovered using a wide-angle camera on Japan's 8.2-meter Subaru Telescope, located on the Hawaiian island of Mauna Kea. They were discovered by examining the photographs using artificial intelligence, as it was very difficult to do it manually, given that the space beyond the bright center of the galaxy has to be explored.
After their research, the scientists worked with the Subaru telescope again, using a new optical filter that will allow them to see fainter and smaller objects. Now they are analyzing the data and if the second Kuiper belt really exists, more than a dozen new distant bodies can be found.
Scientists are also intrigued by the gap between the belts, as well as the mystery of what exactly is responsible for maintaining this gap. As Michal Gorani, a space physicist at the University of Colorado Boulder who operates the New Horizons dust counter, explained, in other solar systems, planets orbiting inside the dust disk create gaps by sucking in material, but we are not aware of the existence of a large planet in this gap. Gorani does not rule out the possibility that it could be a relic from the time of the solar system's birth.
Earlier, OBOZREVATEL reported that a "twin" of the Earth may be hidden in the depths of the solar system.