Deep Ecliptic Survey: Introduction

The past decade has brought the realization that tens of thousands of previously unknown bodies are circling the sun beyond the orbit of Neptune. This region, commonly called the Kuiper Belt, is believed to contain relatively unchanged remnants of the material from which the Solar System formed. The distribution of the orbital parameters of the Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) may well provide a fossil record of the dynamical processes which have sculpted the outer regions of the protoplanetary disk over the age of the Solar System. Moreover, the Kuiper Belt is believed to be the vestigial manifestation in our Solar System of the planet-forming dust disks seen around some other stars.

At present, our knowledge of the physical characteristics (size, shape, composition) of the KBOs is rudimentary. Of the few hundred Kuiper Belt Objects that have been found to date, many have become lost and the orbits of the rest are, for the most part, by no means securely determined.

This sunrise photo shows the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory 90-inch telescope and the Kitt Peak National Observatory's 4-meter telescope. The latter telescope is used in Lowell Observatory's Deep Ecliptic Survey.
Photo credit: NOAO/AURA/NSF.

The Deep Ecliptic Survey is being conducted with the Mosaic Cameras on the 4-meter Mayall and Blanco Telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) and Cerro Tololo InterAmerican Observatory (CTIO), respectively. This program was granted formal survey status at the national observatories beginning in August 2001, but preliminary observations had been conducted since 1998. KPNO and CTIO are part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO). NOAO is funded by the National Science Foundation and operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc.

The bottom-line goals of the DES are to discover approximately 500 KBOs, to accurately define the orbits of this sample, and to conduct the survey in such a way that biases can be removed. In this process, we expect to discover many Kuiper Belt Objects which are sufficiently bright that studies of their physical properties will be feasible with existing large telescopes.


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