Beyond Neptune

Date: Tue Jul 03 2001 - 04:39:57 MDT

Not yer daddy's solar system anymore. Gerard K. O'neil would have been stoked
on this one.


.c The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (June 3) - Astronomers announced Monday they have discovered an
icy body that rivals Pluto's moon in size and hints that other planets may
lurk within the far reaches of our solar system.

The object, 2001 KX76, appears to be between 595 and 788 miles across, making
it larger than any known asteroid and, perhaps, even Pluto's moon Charon.
Charon is estimated to be 744 miles in diameter.

A team of astronomers used the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in
Chile to find the object in images taken on May 22. It orbits the sun at a
distance of about 4 billion miles in the Kuiper Belt of objects beyond

The new object apparently trumps in size all other known objects beyond the
orbit of Neptune, except Pluto itself.

Astronomers spotted the first Kuiper Belt object in 1992. Billions more are
thought to exist, including some 70,000 at least 60 miles across. They are by
far the most abundant type of large objects in the solar system.

``The excitement of this is that it's a new frontier: There is this region in
the solar system beyond Neptune that is populated with a large number of
objects and we have no idea of what we may ultimately discover out there,''
said Robert Millis, director of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Astronomers from the observatory, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
and the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory found 2001 KX76 as part of a
survey of Kuiper Belt objects sponsored by NASA.

Kuiper Belt objects are important because scientists believe they represent,
preserved by the deep freeze of space, pristine remnants of the disk from
which the solar system was created. The belt is also believed to be the
source of the comets that pass close to the sun.

Scientists say further probing of the Kuiper Belt could turn up more large
objects, including bodies that may rival Pluto in size. The ninth planet is
about 1,400 miles across.

``The expectation has been for the last few years that we would find some
objects of Pluto's size and perhaps larger than Pluto. The question now is
when these objects will be picked up,'' said David Jewitt, a University of
Hawaii professor who, with Jane Luu, discovered the first Kuiper Belt object
less than a decade ago.

Further observations of 2001 KX76 should provide better estimates of its

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AP-NY-07-02-01 2220EDT

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