Scoping the Cosmos

May/June 1998

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Scoping the Cosmos

Photo: Iraida Icaza

Jane Luu jets to Hawaii for three weeks each summer. But you'll never find her sipping mai-tais on the beach. Luu spends her nights searching the sky through the lens of a powerful telescope at the summit of an extinct volcano some 14,000 feet above sea level. When the sun comes up, she heads down to base camp, where she analyzes her data and catches a few hours of sleep.

Luu, who has made the trip for each of the last 10 years, got her big reward in 1992, when she discovered a chunk of ice and rock orbiting the sun at the far reaches of the solar system. It turned out to be the first object found in the so-called Kuiper Belt, a region of space now believed to be filled with ancient debris left over from the formation of the solar system.

In 1951, Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper predicted that a ring of matter lay beyond the solar system's farthest planet. But for years, few scientists subscribed to his theory. Luu began looking for the Kuiper Belt in 1987 as a first-year graduate student at MIT. "Everyone told us it was a hokey idea, so we didn't get much support for it," Luu says. She and her adviser, David Jewitt, paid for their early research out of their own pockets.

But Luu and Jewitt proved the skeptics wrong. Fans of novelist John Le Carre, they nicknamed their 1992 discovery "Smiley" after the spy in his stories. Other scientists soon joined the hunt and have since sighted 60 objects -- but as many as 70,000 may exist.

The Kuiper Belt offers more than a heavenly treasure hunt. It holds clues to the mysteries of the solar system. For example, scientists have long been perplexed by Pluto, whose tiny size and rocky composition make it radically different from its nearest neighbors, the gaseous giants Neptune and Jupiter. Now, astronomers believe Pluto might just be an oversized rock in the Kuiper Belt. "We've found millions of things out there just like Pluto," Luu says. "It completely changes our perception of what a planet is."

When she's not searching space for new objects, Luu likes to travel to exotic earthly locales. In 1986, she went to Nepal and walked along a muddy road into Tibet. "It was the first summer they had opened the border in decades, so I had to go," she says.

Now an assistant professor of astronomy at Harvard, she tries to take one adventure trip a year; recent destinations included Mongolia and Madagascar.

But, of course, she is still drawn back to the island of Hawaii -- and to the tens of thousands of rocky objects at the far end of the solar system.

-- Erika Check, '99

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