The recently launched James Webb space telescope has been a major success for the astronomical community in its few months of operation. During this time, it has looked at exoplanets, faraway galaxies, nebulas of various kinds, as well as some of the earliest galaxies near the birth of our universe. Now it will turn its attention to our own solar system and study the objects living in the so-called Kuiper belt.
Exploring the Kuiper Belt
This doughnut-shaped cloud is called after the Dutch astronomer Gerard Kuiper who discovered it in the 1950s. The cloud extends beyond the orbit of Neptune and is believed to hold the remnants of the building blocks of our planets, which means relatively small space rocks that failed to become part of one of the planets, or a new one.
Their size ranges from tiny dust particles to several thousand km, like Pluto and Eris. But also Halley’s comet, Haumea, and Makemake are part of this population. It is even believed that Neptune’s moon Triton is a captured Kuiper belt object.
The project is led by Jonathan Lunine, a scientist at Cornell University in New York. He hopes that the unprecedented infrared sensitivity of the telescope will allow them to detect and study these incredibly cold objects. Perhaps paradoxically, this is harder than studying much more distant galaxies, as they emit their own light. The objects in the Kuiper belt are mostly found based on them reflecting the tiniest bits of light of the Sun.
Learning how the planets and their orbits developed
Lunine and his team hope to use these observations to learn about the building blocks of our solar system and solve how the planets formed and arrived at their orbits. They compare the process to making a stew, where many different ingredients come together to form a singular dish. From just studying the stew, we can learn some aspects and maybe even identify all the ingredients. However, if we could also look at the discarded food scraps that never made it in, then we might be able to better estimate the amount of each ingredient, and maybe discover new ones.
The observations will be based on two proposals, that focus on several dwarf planets, Triton, some larger asteroids, and so-called centaurs (Kuiper belt objects that migrated inwards to between Jupiter and Neptune).
“What we’re trying to do is to share these observations and combine them so we can study a number of these objects ranging in size from Pluto on down,” said Lunine. “We’re going to discover a tremendous amount about the composition of their surfaces and the distribution of ices.”