Astronomy is arguably the oldest science. Observations of the motion of heavenly bodies date back more than 2,500 years. Nevertheless, as recently as 1992, immediately prior to the detection of the first Kuiper belt objects (KBOs) by Jewitt and Luu,1 little was known about the contents of the solar system beyond 30 AU.2 Distant bodies are dim because they reflect little sunlight back to Earth and our most powerful telescopes can only image small angular regions at a single pointing. Thus searches for widely-spaced, faint images are tedious and resource intensive. Before Jewitt and Luu’s discovery, Pluto and its large satellite Charon were the only directly detected bodies orbiting beyond Neptune.
Comets provide indirect information about reservoirs of bodies beyond 30 AU. Although comets are directly detected only when they come within a few AU, their orbits can be traced back to show where they came from. By 1950 it had been established that most long-period comets were visitors from distances in excess of 10,000 AU and that their orbits were randomly oriented with respect to the mean orbit plane of the solar system. These facts led Jan Oort to hypothesize that comets are stored in an enormous spherical cloud beyond 10,000 AU and that gravitational deflections by nearby stars are responsible for injecting those we detect into the inner solar system. Oort’s model is widely accepted and the hypothetical comet cloud carries his name. However, his assumption that short-period comets are descendants of long-period ones did not fare as well.