The New Horizons spaceprobe, having given us some lovely pictures of Pluto in 2015, is on its way to the Kuiper belt. But what is the Kuiper belt? Named after Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, the Kuiper belt is much like the asteroid belt, but much larger, about 15 times further out from the Sun, and far less well understood.
Initially, New Horizons is headed for the rock, or perhaps pair of rocks, (486958) 2014 MU69, which NASA has nicknamed Ultima Thule. The space probe is due to reach it on January 1st (which will be just short of 13 years after its launch). Currently, New Horizons is 6,360,000,000 km or 5.9 light-hours from Earth, and has recently completed a course-correction manoeuvre.
The Kuiper Belt has been in the news lately, because the New Horizons space probe will be visiting it next year. The Kuiper Belt consists of a number of objects on the fringes of the Solar System (from about from about 30 to 55 AU out). Known objects in the belt are green in the image above (image by “WilyD”). Pluto is the best-known of these objects.
The belt is named after the great Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper (1905–1973), based on his 1951 PNAS article “On the Origin of the Solar System” (although it requires some imagination to see a prediction of the Kuiper Belt in this paper). The photo of Kuiper below is from the Dutch National Archives:
I’m looking forward to pictures from the Kuiper Belt next year!