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Friday, 13 September 2013

Worlds on the edge of knowledge: The dark worlds....

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I'm back! As nerdy as ever!!.....What? Whaddya mean I blatantly ripped off the title of some superhero movie? What movie? Thor 2? What's that?

Oh, that Thor 2. 
Ahem. Ok, but there is a point to my blatant plagiarism: The dark worlds of our solar system, near the abyss of interstellar space*, is where our next big journey in deep space exploration lies. And this week has seen confirmation that the Voyager 1 space probe has become he first human ship to leave our solar system.

Above: Neil DeGrasse Tyson welcomes Voyager to interstellar space.

But why the big hooha? What's out on the farthest edge of the Suns light?

On the edge of explored space lie some of the strangest worlds we've ever encountered - the bizarre worlds of the Kuiper belt - with histories that include immense violence, clues to how our solar system formed, and perhaps even conditions suitable for strange life....

Image above:  A map of where the Kuiper belt worlds are. Yes, the giant planets actually do this with the little worlds of the Kuiper belt (using gravity not giant arms) - which is good because we get a chance to learn about the belt.
It's bad because getting a ten billion ton comet in the face hurts....

The Kuiper belt: Pluto, Salacia, Actaiea, Makemake...and countless others

Even with our best space telescopes, studying Kuiper belt worlds from Earth is hard. But we've been able to Sherlock out some information on a few of the biggest - and we've found a rogues gallery....


By far the best known KBO, and still one of the biggest, this dwarf planet has become a more and more fascinating place as we've studied it from Earth. From an atmosphere that snows out during winter, to strangely coloured markings, to a system of five moons (possibly six).

And one of those moons is Charon, a world with signs of cryo-volcanoes - and so, perhaps, some liquid water...

Image above: Recent Hubble images of Pluto and its system of moons. Courtesy of NASA.


Only 30 degrees above absolute zero, plated with exotic ices, this oddball is even further from the Sun than Pluto. It's thought to be home to chemical reactions where the weak solar radiation turns methane ice into chemicals associated with the origin of life on Earth....

 Image above: Red light! No, hang on.... It's the dwarf planet Makemake, located in the Kuiper belt. So...why am I in the outer solar system? I was trying to get to Hackney! Image courtesy of NASA.


As far as weird worlds goes Haumea has the record: It has two moons, and a day that's just 4 hours long. It's shaped like a gigantic peanut and it seems to have been deformed by a massive collision with another ice world. Not only that but Haumea has water ice crystals on its surface. Cosmic radiation destroys crystalline water ice, so Haumea must have been resurfaced at some point in the geologically recent past.
Which is impossible - it's far, far, far too small and cold to have the internal heat to do that....
Image above: A CGI impression of the truly bizarre world Haumea. Or possibly a half sucked Trebor mint.
No, it's definitely Haumea.

And lots more- the Kuiper belt is something like a hundred times more heavier than the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. These are worlds that froze billions of years ago - which makes them snapshots of how things were when the planets were young.
Image above: A map of some of the larger (and therefore easier to spot) worlds in the Kuiper belt. Courtesy of NASA.

But exploring it aint easy! The belt lies so far from the Earth that it takes our fastest probes decades to reach it. Right now there are three that are heading out into the dark: Voyager 2, Voyager 1, and New Horizons.

The Voyager probes were originally designed to visit the major planets and their moons, and they had no fuel left to visit strange cold worlds on the edge of known space. That wasn't deliberate, the Kuiper belt wasn't discovered until 1992, decades after the Voyager missions had been launched .

Despite this many scientist suspect that the Voyagers have accidentally seen Kuiper belt worlds up close: Some of the moons of Uranus and Neptune, like Triton with its weird geysers of liquid nitrogen, are thought to be Kuiper worlds that got caught by their gravity.

Image above: Triton, a moon of Neptune, is thought to be a Kuiper belt world that was sucked in by Neptune's gravity. With its pink snow, bizarre cantaloupe melon terrain, and geysers of liquid nitrogen, it's a strange little hint at what else we might find in the depths of the belt. Image courtesy of NASA.

But the mission that is carrying our best hopes for seeing some these worlds in real Star Trek style is the New Horizons spacecraft:

Above: A bit on the New Horizons mission.

After it's made the passage through the Plutonian system - which is filled with dangerous chunks of ice - New Horizons will move on to visit other Kuiper belt targets, deeper into the black.

The exploration of the solar systems twilight outer edge is more of a challenge than ever..... and the secrets to be found get more compelling by the day.....

* What? This stuff's dramatic, let me ham it up a bit.