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NASA's space probe counts cosmic dust grains and makes a startling discovery

NASA's space probe counts cosmic dust grains and makes a startling discovery

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Understanding the end of the solar system reshapes it. According to new research, the outer edge is much larger than expected.

FRANKFURT – New observations made by NASA's New Horizons space probe, which has already visited Pluto, allow researchers to reinterpret the end of our solar system. The so-called Kuiper Belt – the outer region of our solar system, where there are hundreds of thousands of planetary masses of rock and ice – could be much larger than previously thought. NASA He explained in a statement. The study was published in the specialized journal Astrophysical Journal Letters published.

The new measurements contradict previous data from the end of the solar system

The beginning of the Kuiper Belt is located about 60 times farther from the Sun than Earth. The so-called Ventia Burney Student Dust Counter (SDC) – an instrument for counting cosmic particles – has now detected much higher amounts of dust than expected at the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt. Dust masses are small, frozen remains of collisions between larger Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) and the particles they ejected. Recently, NASA discovered an “unexplained signal” from outside our Milky Way Galaxy.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is providing data that could reshape our understanding of the end of our solar system. © Carlos Hernandez/DPA

According to NASA, the newly published measurements contradict previous scientific models. Previously, researchers assumed that the population and dust density of the Kuiper Belt should begin to decline over a billion miles away. However, new data suggests that the outer edge of the main Kuiper Belt could extend about a billion miles further than previous estimates.

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Kuiper Belt spacecraft may have encountered an “entirely new population of objects.”

Another new theory suggests the possibility of a previously unknown second belt. “The idea that we may have discovered a large-scale Kuiper Belt — with a whole new set of colliding objects and producing more dust — provides another clue to solving the mysteries of the solar system's far reaches,” explains Alex Donner, the book's lead author. Paper and physics student at the University of Colorado Boulder as director of SDC.

“New Horizons makes the first direct measurements of interplanetary dust beyond Neptune and Pluto, so any observation could lead to a discovery,” Donner said. The measuring instrument was designed and built by students at the University of Colorado Boulder under the supervision of professional engineers. The device is able to identify small dust grains formed as a result of collisions between comets, asteroids and Kuiper Belt objects.

The end of the Kuiper Belt is likely 30 AU farther away than expected

The “surprising” results were compiled over three years as the New Horizons probe traveled from 45 to 55 astronomical units from the Sun – where one astronomical unit is the distance between Earth and the Sun, about 140 million kilometres. NASA also recently made a mysterious discovery on a distant planet.

Until now, researchers have assumed that the outer edge of the belt will be at a distance of about 50 AW. Also based on parallel research using observatories such as the Japanese Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, which has also detected a number of Kuiper Belt objects, researchers now assume that the end will be at a distance of 80 AU or more.

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NASA is looking for reasons for the high levels of dust in the Kuiper Belt, and the probe will remain on mission until the 2040s

Scientists will also look for other possible causes for the new high dust levels. For example, the probe may have encountered short-lived ice particles that could not reach the interior of the solar system and were not taken into account in previous research.

“These new science results from New Horizons may be the first time a spacecraft has discovered a new population of objects in our solar system,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder. “I can't wait to see how far the increasing dust concentrations in the Kuiper Belt will extend.” According to NASA, the probe is now on a second mission and should have enough fuel to reach a distance of more than 40 years to be 100 AU from the Sun.