Strangest Kuiper Belt Objects: The Top Five

From Pluto, looking at its icy moons in the Kuiper belt (NASA)

The Kuiper belt is strange. Most of this strangeness probably comes from the fact that we are only just beginning to uncover this mysterious region of the Solar System. Unlike the Oort Cloud which (possibly) lies beyond 3 × 1012 km away (over 20,000 AU, or a whopping 0.3 light years), we can actually observe the objects inside the Kuiper belt as, compared to the Oort Cloud, the Kuiper belt is on our interplanetary doorstep.

But that doesn’t mean it’s close. The Kuiper belt exists in a region of space 30–55 AU from the Sun; this is where Pluto lives (as Pluto itself is a “Kuiper belt object”, or KBO). As astronomical techniques become more advanced however, we are able to discover more KBOs in the zoo of icy-rocky bodies that live in this region.

Having just written about an oddball pair of “highly split” KBOs, I feel compelled to list my top five favourite KBOs. Here are my favourites, as some are really funny-lookin’ and others have some serious personal issues…
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Meet Antipholus and Antipholus, a Very Odd Kuiper Belt Couple

2001 QW322 is a highly split Kuiper Belt pair, orbiting eachother at a distance of 125,000 km

The highly-split Kuiper Belt pair 2001 QW322 (CFEPS)

The Kuiper Belt is an eerie, mysterious and cold region of the Solar System. In it, there are billions of small pieces of rocks with lots of fancy names. As a general designation, all objects in the Kuiper belt are called “Kuiper-belt objects” (KBO’s for short). As the Kuiper belt is located in a region just beyond Neptune, they may also be known as trans-Neptunian objects (TNO’s). Inside the Kuiper belt, we have Pluto-like objects known as “Plutoids”, classical KBO’s called “Cubewanos” (the largest being the recently discovered Makemake) and a whole host of other objects such as icy objects soon to become the next generation of periodic comets.

We are only scraping the surface, finding only a small portion of KBOs. We know of a thousand, but astronomers believe there may be as many as 70,000 measuring over 100km in diameter, plus countless other smaller objects.

Therefore, it is not very surprising that some rather strange KBOs exist, and possibly the oddest one has just been observed. From the same team that discovered KBO 2008 KV42 — a piece of rock orbiting the wrong way in a one-way Solar System — a binary Kuiper belt object has been found with a huge orbit…
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How Long Would it Take to Travel to Proxima Centauri?

Project Orion - Using nuclear explosions as pulsed propulsion (NASA)

This is one of those articles I’ve been meaning to write for a long time: How long would the interstellar transit be from Earth to the nearest star (and no, I don’t mean the Sun)? It turns out that there is no practical way, using today’s available technology that we can travel to Proxima Centauri (a red dwarf star, 4.33 light years from the Solar System). This is a shame as there are so many stars and so many exoplanets to explore, which space enthusiast wouldn’t want to envisage interstellar space travel? However, there may be help at hand, using modern technology and materials; we might be able to mount a manned expedition to Proxima lasting a little under a century…
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The Eden Project and Mars Settlement

The Eden Project, nr. St Austell (©Ian O'Neill)

On our travels last week, we decided to stop off at the Eden Project down near St. Austell in Cornwall for a few hours. It’s been one of those places I’ve always wanted to visit, especially since my involvement with the Mars Foundation. Well known in the UK for its “Biomes” – huge geodesic domes composed of hexagonal cushions of flexible but durable plastic – the project supports a huge number of plants and animals from around the globe. So, apart from looking pretty cool, why have I decided to mention it on astroengine? Well, Eden hasn’t only inspired environmentalists, it could aid the future design and implementation of structures beyond Earth…
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The Sinister Side of the Cosmos: Killer Galaxies, Cosmic Forensic Science and Deadly Radiation

The ghost of a dead dwarf galaxy hangs around the killer, spiral galaxy (R. Jay Gabany)

It’s been a busy day with a range of topics posted on the Universe Today, but all have a common thread: the universe is a deadly place for man and galaxy. For starters, research into the radiation mankind will face when settling on Mars and the Moon could prove to be one of our main challenges in space. The threat of a massive dose of radiation from a solar flare is bad enough, but the gradual damage to our cells and increased risk of cancer is a problem we need to solve, or at least manage. But that’s nothing compared with what dwarf galaxies have to put up with; their larger spiral cousins like to eat them for dinner, leaving behind galactic ghosts of the dwarfs that were…
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Will the First Mars Settlements have Internet Access?

A map on terrestrial internet. Credit: Lanet-vi program of I. Alvarez-Hamelin et al.

Imagine that you have just set up camp on Mars. Everything is up and running. You and your team have not only survived the journey from Earth, you’ve also made it through fiery re-entry and landed within a metre of your planned location. Success! So you crack open a miniature bottle of vintage whisky bottled in the year 2000 and share a sip with your companions. You want to tell the world, you want to check in with your family to say that you are “OK”.

It would be very poor if you were restricted to relaying a message though mission controllers. Simply “phoning home” for a chat wouldn’t be possible (the lag time between sentences would be at least 16 minutes). Could there be a way of sending emails? Possibly; voice messages will be fine too. But could our explorers set up a website or some “Mars blog” to document their travels? This could obviously be done remotely, with a terrestrial website, but there are strong arguments for a distributed Internet service on the Red Planet too. Can a “MarsNet” or “RedNet” be integrated with Earth’s Internet, establishing an “Interplanetary Internet”?
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Building a Base on the Moon

Interconnecting modular-hangar based lunar habitat design. Image courtesy of Florian Ruess.

So mankind is beginning to reach into space. In the past, our efforts beyond the Earth’s atmosphere have been purely strategic and political. Now, scientific advancement is becoming a priority for government agencies and business opportunities are beginning to show themselves for private enterprise. So what’s the next step? If we are to make the ultimate push into space and actually live out there, we must use any natural resource to our advantage. Strategically speaking, the Moon is an ideal stepping stone for mankind to spread our influence beyond Earth. So where do we start?

Having just completed my “Building a Base on the Moon” series on the Universe Today, it is evident that we are gradually developing the right technology and moving in the right direction. But we have a long way to go before we accomplish the ultimate lunar habitat…
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When a Moon Makes a World of a Difference

Io and Jupiter - a dynamic pair…

The Earth’s Van Allen belts are the location for some of the most fearsome particles in space. Highly energetic particles from the Sun get trapped in the layers of the magnetosphere, setting them up for an injection of waves causing acceleration and heating. This naturally causes concern for astronauts and spacecraft passing out of the atmosphere and into this bubble of radiation only 200 miles above the surface. But spare a thought for any spacecraft passing through Jupiter’s magnetic field. The energetic particles there are far more powerful, plus one of the Jovian moons has a huge part to play, generating the plasma waves accelerating the particles even more…
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