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ASTRONOMY

Solar System Suburbs
Location is everything

Mike Brown found a world that wasn't supposed to exist. It was an icy planetoid, nearly the size of Pluto, and it was in the wrong place, in what had been presumed to be a relatively empty region of space with just some gas and dust—certainly no objects perhaps a thousand miles across.
 
It's not that the planetoid itself was a big surprise. Over a decade ago astronomers predicted that ice worlds smaller than planets would be found in a region named the Kuiper belt, roughly between the orbit of Neptune and a region of space a pretty good hike beyond Pluto. In 1992 astronomers in Hawaii found the first of what is now a list of nearly a thousand icy bodies in that region. Some are pretty chunky—hundreds of miles in diameter.
 
Brown, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, has found many of the largest planetoids himself. But the one he found in November 2003—called Sedna, in honor of an Inuit sea goddess of the Arctic—not only is bigger than any known Kuiper belt object other than Pluto but also is many billions of miles farther from the sun than the Kuiper belt bodies. Sedna at its closest approach to the sun is still two and a half times as far away as Pluto. Its orbit will eventually take it more than 12 times that far away, into a dim exurb of the solar system where the sun looks more like an ordinary star.
 
Brown wondered if he had made the first discovery of a body in the Oort cloud, a hypothesized reservoir of comets forming a kind of shell around the solar system trillions of miles from the sun. Dutch astronomer Jan Oort theorized in the 1950s that certain comets come from this distant pool. But Sedna is much closer to the sun than those hypothetical comets.
 
Astronomers have been making new models of our solar system since Earth was thought to reside at its center. Brown thinks it's time for another. Perhaps the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud overlap. Icy objects may exist from here to there and everywhere in between.
 
"Sedna just blew us away. We had no idea that this intermediate population was out there," Brown says.
 
He suspects that there are larger worlds in our solar system. One, by his calculation, might be close to the size of Mars, around 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) in diameter, which would definitely bump it up to planet status. He estimates that another 60 bodies the size of Sedna will eventually come into view.
 
No one will be eager to relocate to an ice ball way beyond Pluto, but this kind of research helps us understand how planetary systems form and evolve. In the meantime, anyone who builds a new model of our solar system should make sure it has room for an extension.
 
—Joel Achenbach
Washington Post staff writer


Web Links

Search for Other Earths
magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0412/feature4/index.html
Watch the dynamic formation of planets and join our forum.

More Articles by Joel Achenbach
www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/style/columns/achenbach
Read some of writer Joel Achenbach's columns for the Washington Post.

Sedna (2003 VB12)
www.gps.caltech.edu/~mbrown/sedna/#planets
For the latest and most comprehensive information on Sedna, visit Mike Brown's website.

University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy Kuiper Belt Page
www.ifa.hawaii.edu/faculty/jewitt/kb.html
How is the edge of the Kuiper belt determined? What does the surface of a Kuiper belt object look like? What are binary Kuiper belt objects? What is Planet X? Find answers to these questions and more at this website with good links, including one to the International Astronomical Union's listing of all KBOs.

NASA Planetary Fact Sheets
nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/planetfact.html
Get comparative measurements and orbital parameters of our solar system's planets and select asteroids from NASA's National Space Science Data Center.


Free World Map
Bibliography

Brown, Michael E. "The Kuiper Belt." Physics Today (April 2004), 49-54.
 
Davies, John Keith. Beyond Pluto: Exploring the Outer Limits of the Solar System. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
 
Stern, Alan S. "The Evolution of Comets in the Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt." Nature (August 2003), 639-42.




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