Kavli Prize Laureate Lecture: Discovery of the Kuiper Belt

Beyond the orbit of Neptune in the deep dark depths of our Solar System lies the Kuiper Belt, home of the former planet Pluto and billions of other objects made of dust and ice. The discovery and exploration of the belt earned astronomers David Jewitt, from UCLA in California, and Jane Luu, from MIT in Boston, the prestigious Kavli Prize for astrophysics. They joined Adam Rutherford to discuss their work and what it has revealed about the formation and evolution of the Solar System at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival on June 7. Kirsti Strøm Bull, President of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, gave the opening speech and introduced the speakers.

Jane Luu and David Jewitt. Photo: Knut Falch

Jane Luu and David Jewitt

Jane Luu and David Jewitt were awarded the 2012 Kavli Prize in astrophysics, shared with Michael E. Brown, "for discovering and characterizing the Kuiper Belt and its largest members, work that led to a major advance in the understanding of the history of our planetary system," to quote the prize committee.

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Jane LuuDavid Jewitt

Jewitt, Luu, and Brown's discoveries were each the result of cleverly designed observational campaigns aimed specifically at detecting new classes of distant objects in the Solar System. Their research required creative strategies, a great deal of persistence, and an open-minded approach to expect the unexpected.

The Kuiper Belt, also referred to as the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt, is a disk of more than 70,000 small bodies larger than 100 km in diameter made of rock and ices that is orbiting the Sun. The Kavli Prize in astrophysics honoured Luu and Jewitt for discovering the Kuiper Belt, and Brown for discovering many of its largest members.

QB1 - first Kuiper Belt Object

Jewitt and Luu discovered the first Kuiper Belt Object, known as 1992 QB1, in 1992. Their Slow Moving Objects survey, which lasted almost a decade, used progressively larger CCD cameras to detect faint objects moving slowly relative to background stars. Their discovery of the Kuiper Belt and subsequent investigation of the composition of Kuiper Belt Objects is bringing new insight into the early history and current state of the Solar System.

Kuiper Belt Objects appear to be primitive bodies that are remnants of the early stages of solar system formation, when the giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) were accreting surrounding gas, dust, and ices. Although the giant planets eventually swept up most of the nearby primitive bodies, it is thought that the Kuiper Belt, which lies well outside the giant planets' orbits, contained fossils left over from the process of planet formation. Their composition and orbital characteristics thus offer a unique probe to the earliest phases of the Solar System.