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Gerard Kuiper
Gerard Kuiper 1964b.jpg
Gerard Kuiper in 1964
Gerrit Pieter Kuiper

(1905-12-07)December 7, 1905
Tuitjenhorn, Netherlands
DiedDecember 23, 1973(1973-12-23) (aged 68)
Alma materLeiden University
(Master of Science, Master of Physics, Doctor of Philosophy, Doctor of Science)
Planetary scientist
Years active1933–1973
Known forKuiper belt
Spouse(s)Sarah Fuller (1936–1973; his death)

Gerard Peter Kuiper (English: /ˈkpər/; Dutch pronunciation: [ˈkœypər]; born Gerrit Pieter Kuiper; December 7, 1905 – December 23, 1973) was a Dutch–American astronomer, planetary scientist, selenographer, author and professor. He is the eponymous namesake of the Kuiper belt. Kuiper is considered by many to be the father of modern planetary science.[1] As professor at the University of Chicago, he was dissertation advisor to Carl Sagan. In 1958, the two worked on the classified military Project A119, the secret Air Force plan to detonate a nuclear warhead on the Moon.

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  • ✪ What Is The Kuiper Belt?
  • ✪ How To Say Kuiper Belt
  • ✪ OTD in Space – May 1: Neptune's Moon Nereid Discovered


After years of searching, Clyde Tombaugh discovered tiny Pluto on February 18th, 1930, Little did he realize this was just one icy object in a vast belt of material known as the Kuiper Belt. [Mike Brown describes the region of the Kuiper Belt: 12:30 - 12:57 "The Kuiper Belt... out beyond Neptune.] Mike Brown: The Kuiper Belt is a collection of bodies outside the orbit of Neptune that, if nothing else had happened, if Neptune hadn't formed or if things had gone a little bit better, maybe they could have gotten together themselves and formed the next planet out beyond Neptune. But instead, in the history of the solar system, when Neptune formed it led to these objects not being able to get together, so it's just this belt of material out beyond Neptune. After Tombaugh's discovery, other astronomers guessed that Pluto wasn't alone and there would be more planets to discover in the outer Solar System. But nothing turned up for decades. Back in 1951, the Dutch astronomer Gerard Kuiper proposed that out beyond Neptune, material was spaced too far apart to form into a single large planet. Instead, he predicted that there would only be a small collection of icy objects. Occasionally one of these objects would wander into the inner Solar System and become a comet. The idea of this "Kuiper Belt" made sense to astronomers, and it helped explain why there were no large planets further out in the Solar System. It also conveniently wrapped up another mystery of the Solar System: where do comets come from? Astronomers assumed these objects were out there, but they had no evidence of anything other than Pluto. A few icy objects were found between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus, but nothing out past Neptune. After searching the region for five years, and using the latest in telescope technology, astronomers David Jewitt and Jane Luu finally confirmed the existence of the Kuiper Belt in 1992. They found a tiny object, a fraction of the size of Pluto, and the techniques they used unlocked an icy land rush. Six months later, the next object was found. And many more came after that. Fortunately for us, Kuiper was wrong, and the belt hadn't been cleared out billions of years ago. It's still a busy place. There have been more than a thousand objects discovered, and it's theorized that there are as many as 100,000 objects larger than 100 km in diameter. One part Kuiper was definitely right about is that these objects won't last forever. [Mike Brown talks about how the KBOs are grinding each other down: 13:10 - 13:25 "And these days... no Kuiper Belt left." ] Mike Brown: We call it a belt, but it's a very wide belt. It's something like 45 degrees in extent across the sky - this big swath of material that's just been churned and churned by Neptune. And these days, instead of making a bigger and bigger body, they're just colliding and slowly grinding down into dust. If we come back in another hundred million years, there'll be no Kuiper Belt left. Keeping Pluto company out in the Kuiper belt, are many other objects worthy of mention: Quaoar, Makemake, Haumea, Orcus and Eris are all large icy bodies in the Belt. Several of them even have moons of their own. These are all tremendously far away, and yet, very much within reach. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will reach this region in 2015, and capture the first ever close up pictures of a Kuiper Belt object, images of the surface of Pluto. Even more exciting for ancient ice-rock enthusiasts, it looks like our Solar System isn't unique. There have been icy debris belts - other Kuiper Belts - discovered around nine other star systems. There are narrow ones, like our own Solar System, and then wider belts extending much further out. Infrared surveys suggest that at many as 20% of star systems have one of their own. Vast and unexplored, the Kuiper belt is the source of many comets, and contains ancient ice that was formed at the beginning of the Solar System. Let's hope New Horizons is just the beginning of future decades of research into this mysterious region.


Early life

Kuiper, the son of a tailor in the village of Harenkarspel in North Holland, had an early interest in astronomy. He had extraordinarily sharp eyesight, allowing him to see magnitude 7.5 stars with the naked eye, about four times fainter than visible to normal eyes. He went to study at Leiden University in 1924, where at the time a very large number of astronomers had congregated. He befriended fellow students Bart Bok and Pieter Oosterhoff and was taught by Ejnar Hertzsprung, Antonie Pannekoek, Willem de Sitter, Jan Woltjer, Jan Oort and the physicist Paul Ehrenfest. He received his candidate degree in Astronomy in 1927 and continued straight on with his graduate studies. Kuiper finished his doctoral thesis on binary stars with Hertzsprung in 1933, after which he traveled to California to become a fellow under Robert Grant Aitken at the Lick Observatory. In 1935 he left to work at the Harvard College Observatory where he met Sarah Parker Fuller, whom he married on June 20, 1936. Although he had planned to move to Java to work at the Bosscha Observatory, he took a position at the Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago and became an American citizen in 1937. In 1949, Kuiper initiated the Yerkes–McDonald asteroid survey (1950–1952).


Kuiper discovered two natural satellites of planets in the Solar System, namely Uranus's satellite Miranda and Neptune's satellite Nereid. In addition, he discovered carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of Mars and the existence of a methane-laced atmosphere above Saturn's satellite Titan in 1944. Kuiper also pioneered airborne infrared observing using a Convair 990 aircraft in the 1960s.

Kuiper spent most of his career at the University of Chicago, but moved to Tucson, Arizona, in 1960 to found the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona. Kuiper was the laboratory's director until his death in 1973: while on vacation with his wife in Mexico he had a heart attack. One of the three buildings at Arizona that makes up the LPL is named in his honor.

In the 1950s Kuiper's interdisciplinary collaboration with the geochemist and Nobel Laureate Harold C. Urey to understand the Moon's thermal evolution descended into acrimony, as the two engaged in what became known as the “Hot Moon Cold Moon” controversy. Their falling out, in part a scientific dispute, also reflected the challenge of maintaining professional relationships across overlapping but distinct scientific disciplines.[2]

In the 1960s, Kuiper helped identify landing sites on the Moon for the Apollo program. His earlier work on the Moon included the secret Project A119, the secret Air Force plan to detonate a nuclear warhead on the Moon.[3] Another scientist in the group was Carl Sagan, who was Kuiper's PhD student at the time of the project.[3]

Kuiper discovered several binary stars which received "Kuiper numbers" to identify them, such as KUI 79.


Gerard P. Kuiper Space Sciences building at the University of Arizona
Gerard P. Kuiper Space Sciences building at the University of Arizona

Besides the minor planet 1776 Kuiper, three craters (Mercurian, lunar and Martian), Kuiper Scarp in Antarctica, and the now-decommissioned Kuiper Airborne Observatory was also named after him.

Astronomers refer to a region of minor planets beyond Neptune as the "Kuiper belt", since Kuiper had suggested that such small planets or comets may have formed there. However he believed that such objects would have been swept clear by planetary gravitational perturbations so that none or few would exist there today.

The Kuiper Prize, named in his honor, is the most distinguished award given by the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences, an international society of professional planetary scientists. The prize recognizes outstanding contributors to planetary science, and is awarded annually to scientists whose lifetime achievements have most advanced our understanding of planetary systems. Winners of this award include Carl Sagan, James Van Allen, and Eugene Shoemaker.


  1. ^ "NASA Solar System Exploration". Retrieved April 12, 2015.
  2. ^ Doel, Ronald E. (1996). Solar System Astronomy in America: Communities, Patronage, and Interdisciplinary Science, 1920-1960. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521115681.
  3. ^ a b Ulivi, Paolo (2004). Lunar Exploration: Human Pioneers and Robotic Surveyors. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 20. ISBN 978-1-85233-746-9.

External links

This page was last edited on 23 October 2019, at 12:11
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