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Scientific research. Why are the ends of the solar system so colorful?

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The vibrant colors of objects in the Kuiper Belt – a distant asteroid belt beyond the orbit of Neptune – are likely the result of radiation. Researchers in the United States have studied the ‘evolution of colors’ in conditions that mimic space. As they noted, in such an extreme environment, organic compounds found on objects can change color.

The Kuiper belt is a zone that lies beyond the orbit of Neptune in the solar system. It is full of small, frozen celestial bodies, the most recognizable of which is Pluto. These objects have one more interesting feature – they are much more diverse in terms of color than any similar group known to us. In a study published in “Science Advances”, scientists from the University of Hawaii decided to check where this riot of colors came from.

Colorful ice

To test the evolution of cosmic colors, the research team recreated conditions in the Kuiper Belt in the laboratory. The experiment consisted in the irradiation of frozen organic compounds (methane and acetylene) in an ultra-high vacuum – previous observations confirmed the presence of these substances on these distant celestial bodies. Next, the scientists tracked how extreme conditions affected the transformations of compounds and their colors.

Observations showed that as a result of radiation, organic compounds were transformed into molecules of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – acenaphthylene, phenanthrene and phenalene. While on Earth these pollutants are a nuisance, in the Kuiper Belt they play a key role in producing intense yellow, red and brown hues on the surfaces of celestial bodies.

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Pluto and Charon as seen by New HorizonsNASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Distant and mysterious

As explained by Ralf Kaiser, the study’s lead author, scientists plan further experiments on frozen compounds found in the Kuiper Belt – methanol, ammonia or even water. Researchers hope that in this way they will learn even better about the colors of the distant solar system at the molecular level.

The Kuiper Belt is a vast, remote region of the solar system that may contain millions of icy objects. At the moment, only a small part of them is known, including several dwarf planets – Pluto, Makemake and Haumea. This region is shaped like a thick disk. As he explains NASAthe study of the Kuiper Belt is important because many of the objects that make up it are remnants from the early formation of the solar system, which can tell us a lot about its history.

Visualization of the dwarf planet Makemake and its moon MK 2NASA, ESA/A. Parker

Main photo source: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

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