Distant objects show that the solar system is more spread out than we knew

A new method of scanning telescope images for the faintest rocky signatures far beyond Pluto has uncovered evidence that our solar system’s disk of material extends far further into interstellar space than previously thought.

Decades of looking at the shadows have given astronomers the impression that the scattered field of icy rocks known as the Kuiper Belt suddenly thins from 48 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun (or 48 AU).

Debris belts have been seen to extend at least twice that distance around similar stars, which is tiny compared to our own solar system. With this new discovery, we may not be so unusual after all.

A team of astronomers led by Canada’s Herzberg Research Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics hoped to discover new targets for the New Horizons probe to investigate as it travels through the solar system.

After providing a few close-up views of Pluto, the mission snapped images of a snowman-shaped rock roughly 40 AU from the sun before continuing on its merry way at just under 60,000 kilometers (about 36,000 miles) per hour. .

Finding things is no easy task for this handy little probe, which is now nearly 60 AU from the Sun. Astronomers have to be smart to see anything that moves at midnight.

One of the commonly used techniques is called Shift-stacking. With so little light at the edge of the solar system, few objects are visible in any telescope image.

By taking pictures at different times and then stacking the images, you can combine all that light from a dim object into one spot and increase its visibility.

If the target path is clear, all is well. Finding undiscovered objects this way requires a lot of trial and error, adjusting the image collection along possible orbits until a bright gem is revealed.

Even with a computer algorithm to help, searching for hidden gems in a mass of hundreds of images requires good old-fashioned human power, and lots of it.

To remove at least some of the hassle and speed things up, the research team used machine learning and trained a neural network on objects made in the telescope’s images, before running it on data collected using the Subaru telescope. On Mauna Kea in Hawaii in 2020 and 2021.

Compared to a human search of the 2020 data, the machine learning technique identified twice as many Kuiper Belt objects, indicating a marked increase in the density of material at a distance of about 60 to 80 AU along the New Horizons track.

Kuiper belt objects identified from the 2021 (blue) and 2022 (orange) Subaru observations. The position of New Horizons is black, in the center. (Fraser et al., 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference 2023)

The results could help explain the unusual glow detected by both the probe and the Hubble Space Telescope, along with additional debris contributing to its reflection in dust in the outer solar system.

Given that similar surveys of other parts of the sky have failed to detect such bounties of rotating bodies, one must ask whether they were simply unlucky, whether there is something special about the solar system along the New Horizons path, or whether the technique Machine learning has few. Defects for ironing

The results of this study have not yet been peer-reviewed and should then be confirmed by future ground-based and space-based surveys.

However, it is possible that our solar system has at least two rings of icy material separated by a gap of about 50 AU. One consists of the familiar Kuiper Belt, the other a vast stretch of icy boulders that reach as far from Pluto as we do.

Of course, why such a gap might exist at all is an interesting mystery in itself.

This research was presented at the 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference 2023.

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