According to data from the New Horizons probe, the belt of icy debris that circles the outer Solar System may be more extensive than previously thought.

The probe detected unexpected levels of particles in areas where the dust should be thinning out, indicating that the donut-shaped field extends further from the Sun than previously estimated.

This discovery adds to the growing body of evidence that our knowledge of the outer Solar System is incomplete, but it could help us gain a better understanding of our planetary system and other systems in the wider galaxy.

“New Horizons is making the first direct measurements of interplanetary dust far beyond Neptune and Pluto, so every observation could lead to a discovery,” says physicist Alex Doner of the University of Colorado Boulder.

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“The idea that we might have detected an extended Kuiper Belt – with a whole new population of objects colliding and producing more dust – offers another clue in solving the mysteries of the Solar System’s most distant regions.”

The Kuiper Belt is a region in our Solar System that has a high density of rocky and icy objects. These objects are icy because the region is very far from the Sun and therefore very cold. The Kuiper Belt has a variety of objects, including large rocks, dwarf planets, and smaller objects that are difficult to see due to the darkness of space. However, dust in the region can provide information about what’s happening there.

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The Kuiper Belt is already known to be quite large, starting at the orbit of Neptune, which is about 30 astronomical units away from the Sun. However, it was thought that the inner main region of the belt ended at around 50 astronomical units.

NASA’s New Horizons probe was launched to explore the outer Solar System. After visiting Pluto in 2015, which orbits the Sun at an average distance of 39 astronomical units, the probe continued on. In January 2019, it flew by a strange object named Arrokoth, which orbits the Sun at an average distance of 44.6 astronomical units.

Between distances of 45 and 55 astronomical units, New Horizons collected data and sent it back to Earth. To the surprise of scientists, its Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter (SDC) detected more dust than expected in that region. This suggests that there are either more collisions between larger objects producing extra dust or that solar radiative forces are unexpectedly pushing dust from denser regions out into that space.

The most likely explanation is that there are enough icy rocks in the region that collisions between them occur frequently enough to produce the extra dust. Recent observations from telescopes have suggested that the inner main region of the Kuiper Belt may extend as far as 80 astronomical units, which is consistent with the possibility that the Kuiper Belt is even larger than previously thought.

As of now, New Horizons is over 58 astronomical units away from the Sun and is still sending data home during its second extended mission. Scientists hope that it will continue operating past 100 astronomical units and possibly even reach the very edge of the Solar System, beyond 120 astronomical units.

This news is a creative derivative product from articles published in famous peer-reviewed journals and Govt reports:

1. Doner, A., Horányi, M., Bagenal, F., Brandt, P., Grundy, W., Lisse, C., … & Verbiscer, A. (2024). New Horizons Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter Observes Higher than Expected Fluxes Approaching 60 au. The Astrophysical Journal Letters, 961(2), L38.
2. Danby J. M. A. 1992 Fundamentals of Celestial Mechanics (London: Atlantic Books) 149
3. Fountain G., Weaver H., Reuter D. et al. 2023 Johns Hopkins APL Tech. Dig. 37 34
4. Han D., Poppe A. R., Piquette M., Grün E. and Horányi M. 2011 GeoRL 38 24102

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