Strange Object Boosts Kuiper Belt Mystery
NOV 13, 2013 01:48 PM ET // BY IAN O’NEILL

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There’s something odd floating around in the outer solar system. Actually, there’s lots of odd things floating around in the outer solar system, but 2002 UX25 is one of the most baffling.

The mid-sized Kuiper belt object (KBO) measures 650 kilometers (400 miles) across, and yet it has a density less than water (less than 1 gram per cubic centimeter). Yes, if you put it in a huge bathtub, 2002 UX25 would float.

As we probably all know by now, the Kuiper belt — a populated region of the solar system found just beyond the orbit of Neptune — is a strange place. Once thought to have a population of just one, astronomers have identified thousands of other minor planetary bodies. In fact, it was the accelerated discoveries in the Kuiper belt that ultimately led to the reclassification (or demotion, depending on which way you look at it) of Pluto from “planet” to lowly “dwarf planet.”

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Kuiper Belt Was a ‘War Zone’ — A Detective Story
MAR 16, 2013 08:11 PM ET // BY IAN O’NEILL

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Kuiper Belt Was a ‘War Zone’ — A Detective Story

Astronomy can be a cosmic detective story, and our enduring fascination with the solar system’s mysterious hinterland of small icy objects in the Kuiper belt is no exception.

In fact, as wonderfully detailed by Mike Brown, professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), his detective work focuses on the growing population of dwarf planet discoveries in the Kuiper belt, revealing the frigid region used to be a pretty violent place.

Brown took a retrospective look at his research during the W. M. Keck Observatory 20th Anniversary Science Meeting at The Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii, the Big Island, on Thursday. Brown is famously known as the “Pluto Killer” — he discovered the dwarf planet Eris in 2005 that, ultimately, led to Pluto being reclassified by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2006. The fascinating story is revealed in his best-selling book, “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.”

Although each Kuiper belt object its own unique story of discovery, Brown discussed the detection and investigation of the oddball dwarf planet (136108) Haumea — a world approximately a third of the mass of Pluto. Originally discovered by Brown’s Caltech team using the Palomar Observatory in 2004, key observations were carried out with the Keck Observatory telescopes atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii. “We named the object Haumea in honor of the work done at Keck,” said Brown. In Hawaiian mythology, Haumea is the goddess of fertility and childbirth.

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