Saturday, 12 March 2011

Trans-Neptunian region

The area beyond Neptune, or the "trans-Neptunian region", is still largely unexplored. It appears to consist overwhelmingly of small worlds (the largest having a diameter only a fifth that of the Earth and a mass far smaller than that of the Moon) composed mainly of rock and ice. This region is sometimes known as the "outer Solar System", though others use that term to mean the region beyond the asteroid belt.
Kuiper belt
Main article: Kuiper belt
Plot of all known Kuiper belt objects, set against the four outer planets

The Kuiper belt, the region's first formation, is a great ring of debris similar to the asteroid belt, but composed mainly of ice.[64] It extends between 30 and 50 AU from the Sun. Though it contains at least three dwarf planets, it is composed mainly of small Solar System bodies. However, many of the largest Kuiper belt objects, such as Quaoar, Varuna, and Orcus, may be reclassified as dwarf planets. There are estimated to be over 100,000 Kuiper belt objects with a diameter greater than 50 km, but the total mass of the Kuiper belt is thought to be only a tenth or even a hundredth the mass of the Earth.[65] Many Kuiper belt objects have multiple satellites,[66] and most have orbits that take them outside the plane of the ecliptic.[67]

The Kuiper belt can be roughly divided into the "classical" belt and the resonances.[64] Resonances are orbits linked to that of Neptune (e.g. twice for every three Neptune orbits, or once for every two). The first resonance begins within the orbit of Neptune itself. The classical belt consists of objects having no resonance with Neptune, and extends from roughly 39.4 AU to 47.7 AU.[68] Members of the classical Kuiper belt are classified as cubewanos, after the first of their kind to be discovered, (15760) 1992 QB1, and are still in near primordial, low-eccentricity orbits.[69]
Pluto and Charon
Comparison of Eris, Pluto, Makemake, Haumea, Sedna, Orcus, 2007 OR10, Quaoar, and Earth (all to scale)

    Pluto (39 AU average), a dwarf planet, is the largest known object in the Kuiper belt. When discovered in 1930, it was considered to be the ninth planet; this changed in 2006 with the adoption of a formal definition of planet. Pluto has a relatively eccentric orbit inclined 17 degrees to the ecliptic plane and ranging from 29.7 AU from the Sun at perihelion (within the orbit of Neptune) to 49.5 AU at aphelion.

    Charon, Pluto's largest moon, is sometimes described as part of a binary system with Pluto, as the two bodies orbit a barycenter of gravity above their surfaces (i.e., they appear to "orbit each other"). Beyond Charon, two much smaller moons, Nix and Hydra, orbit within the system.

    Pluto has a 3:2 resonance with Neptune, meaning that Pluto orbits twice round the Sun for every three Neptunian orbits. Kuiper belt objects whose orbits share this resonance are called plutinos.[70]

Haumea and Makemake

    Haumea (43.34 AU average), and Makemake (45.79 AU average), while smaller than Pluto, are the largest known objects in the classical Kuiper belt (that is, they are not in a confirmed resonance with Neptune). Haumea is an egg-shaped object with two moons. Makemake is the brightest object in the Kuiper belt after Pluto. Originally designated 2003 EL61 and 2005 FY9 respectively, they were given names and designated dwarf planets in 2008.[71] Their orbits are far more inclined than Pluto's, at 28° and 29°.[72]

Scattered disc
Main article: Scattered disc

The scattered disc, which overlaps the Kuiper belt but extends much further outwards, is thought to be the source of short-period comets. Scattered disc objects are believed to have been ejected into erratic orbits by the gravitational influence of Neptune's early outward migration. Most scattered disc objects (SDOs) have perihelia within the Kuiper belt but aphelia as far as 150 AU from the Sun. SDOs' orbits are also highly inclined to the ecliptic plane, and are often almost perpendicular to it. Some astronomers consider the scattered disc to be merely another region of the Kuiper belt, and describe scattered disc objects as "scattered Kuiper belt objects."[73] Some astronomers also classify centaurs as inward-scattered Kuiper belt objects along with the outward-scattered residents of the scattered disc.[74]

Eris (68 AU average) is the largest known scattered disc object, and caused a debate about what constitutes a planet, since it is 25% more massive than Pluto[75] and about the same diameter. It is the most massive of the known dwarf planets. It has one moon, Dysnomia. Like Pluto, its orbit is highly eccentric, with a perihelion of 38.2 AU (roughly Pluto's distance from the Sun) and an aphelion of 97.6 AU, and steeply inclined to the ecliptic plane.

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