By PETER SUR
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Nearly 20 years ago in a Mauna Kea observatory, a University of Hawaii astronomy professor and a graduate student made a discovery that would reshape the view of the solar system and strip Pluto of its status as a planet.
For that reason David Jewitt, who is now with the University of California-Los Angeles, and Jane Luu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will split the $1 million Shaw Prize in astronomy, a prestigious award by a Hong Kong-based foundation. In an email to the Tribune-Herald, Jewitt called the honor “a strange but good feeling.”
“Science advances basically by proving that what people believe is wrong,” Jewitt said. “So, it’s normal for your work to be criticized all the time by other scientists. And sometimes the criticism becomes personal and sometimes it is relentless. This award is just the opposite in that it shows that other people do recognize the importance of what we have done.”
The discovery of an object orbiting beyond Neptune was made with the 88-inch UH telescope, one of the older telescopes on Mauna Kea. Prior to the 1992 discovery, astronomers weren’t sure what, if anything, existed in the outer solar system. And Pluto didn’t resemble any other planet.
Using telescopes in Arizona, Jewitt and Luu began working together in 1986 to find any identifiable objects in the outer solar system, but they were unsuccessful at first. In 1988, Jewitt moved to the UH Institute for Astronomy and switched from photographic plates to digital sensors. They used the same basic method that Clyde Tombaugh used in 1930 to discover Pluto: Take two images a few minutes apart and see if anything moved.
“It was (a) very methodical wide-field search looking for objects that moved across the background of the stars,” said Donald Hall, the IfA director at the time of the discovery. He called the award “the Nobel Prize of Asia” and said it was “fantastic news.”
Asked to describe his observations on Mauna Kea, Jewitt said it was “painful and awesome at the same time.”
The project continued without success until the night of Sept. 30, 1992, when an object identified as 1992 QB1 appeared on a computer monitor. That night, after confirming that the object was real, Luu said, “So, that’s the end of Pluto.”
They had stumbled on a new class of solar system objects — not planets, nor asteroids or comets — but rather, mixtures of rock and ice that were accreted at the beginning of the solar system, 4.5 billion years ago, and preserved at low temperatures ever since.
Astronomers using better instruments have since located more than a thousand of the objects, a tiny fraction of the number of objects estimated to be orbiting in deep space.
“There are about 40,000 bigger than the Big Island, and maybe a billion bigger than Diamond Head,” Jewitt said. They are believed to orbit the sun beyond Neptune’s orbit in the Kuiper Belt, named after the late astronomer Gerard Kuiper.
One of them, discovered in 2004 by another team, was named Haumea after the Hawaiian goddess of fertility and mother of Pele.
Then, in 2005, the same team that found Haumea announced the discovery of Eris, which was initially billed as the 10th planet — a frozen world bigger than Pluto.
The next year, the governing body of astronomers revised the definition of a planet to downgrade Pluto into a dwarf planet. Luu’s prediction came true.
The Kuiper Belt, Jewitt said, is a “deep freeze storage repository” for the most primitive matter in the solar system, the origin of the short-period comets like Halley’s Comet.
The belt also supports the theory that Uranus and Neptune formed closer to Jupiter and Saturn, but migrated outward due to gravitational interactions.
“That has completely altered our understanding of solar system evolution,” Jewitt said.
The Shaw Prize was established in 2002 by a foundation that awards three annual prizes in astronomy, life science and medicine, and mathematical sciences. The other laureates were honored for their research in protein folding, a process at the heart of many cellular functions, and wide-ranging work in algebra, geometry and other mathematical fields.
“I thought it was a great validation of what was an impressive piece of work by an astronomer and his grad student,” Hall said, “doing a very well-conceived and executed program of research.”
“Don’t think that the solar system is a closed book. It’s not,” Jewitt said. “The Kuiper Belt is a huge piece of real estate that was previously thought to be empty and is now known to be full of fascinating primitive objects.
“If it could escape our notice until 20 years ago, so can a lot of other things.”
Email Peter Sur at email@example.com.