May 9, 2018
An international team of astronomers has used ESO telescopes to investigate a relic of the primordial Solar System. The team found that the unusual Kuiper Belt Object 2004 EW95 is a carbon-rich asteroid, the first of its kind to be confirmed in the cold outer reaches of the Solar System. This curious object likely formed in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and has been flung billions of kilometres from its origin to its current home in the Kuiper Belt.
The early days of our Solar System were a tempestuous time. Theoretical models of this period predict that after the gas giants formed they rampaged through the Solar System, ejecting small rocky bodies from the inner Solar System to far-flung orbits at great distances from the Sun . In particular, these models suggest that the Kuiper Belt — a cold region beyond the orbit of Neptune — should contain a small fraction of rocky bodies from the inner Solar System, such as carbon-rich asteroids, referred to as carbonaceous asteroids .
Now, a recent paper has presented evidence for the first reliably-observed carbonaceous asteroid in the Kuiper Belt, providing strong support for these theoretical models of our Solar System’s troubled youth. After painstaking measurements from multiple instruments at ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), a small team of astronomers led by Tom Seccull of Queen’s University Belfast in the UK was able to measure the composition of the anomalous Kuiper Belt Object 2004 EW95, and thus determine that it is a carbonaceous asteroid. This suggests that it originally formed in the inner Solar System and must have since migrated outwards .
The peculiar nature of 2004 EW95 first came to light during routine observations with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope by Wesley Fraser, an astronomer from Queen’s University Belfast who was also a member of the team behind this discovery. The asteroid’s reflectance spectrum — the specific pattern of wavelengths of light reflected from an object — was different to that of similar small Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), which typically have uninteresting, featureless spectra that reveal little information about their composition.
Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser