The Deep Ecliptic Survey: A Search for Kuiper Belt Objects and Centaurs. I. Description of Methods and Initial Results
We report here initial results of the Deep Ecliptic Survey, an ongoing new search for Kuiper belt objects (KBOs) and Centaurs using the 8K×8K Mosaic CCD array on the 4 m Mayall Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Within the interval covered in this paper, useful observations were obtained during seven nights in 1998 October and November, 1999 April, and 2000 February. We used a novel technique to efficiently find and determine positions of moving objects. Sixty-nine KBOs and Centaurs with apparent magnitudes between 20.6 and approximately the 24th magnitude were discovered. Nine or 10 of the newly discovered KBOs appear to be in the 3:2 mean motion resonance with Neptune, and four appear to be scattered-disk objects. Three objects were found that may be in the 4:3 resonance. Sixty-two of the objects reported here have been observed on at least one additional night and have received designations. Our own follow-up astrometry was done primarily with the WIYN 3.5 m telescope in queue-scheduled mode and with the Steward Observatory 90 inch (2.3 m) telescope. Others, using a variety of telescopes, recovered a significant number of our objects. Although not a primary objective of the survey, positions of all main-belt asteroids, Trojan asteroids, and nearby fast-moving asteroids seen in our data also have been determined, and most have been reported to the Minor Planet Center. Through simulations and analysis of the existing KBO database, we have investigated the uncertainty to be expected in various KBO orbital parameters as a function of the extent of the astrometric coverage. The results indicate that the heliocentric distance of an object and the inclination of its orbit can be narrowly constrained with observations from a single apparition. Accurate determination of semimajor axis and eccentricity, on the other hand, requires astrometric data extending over additional apparitions. Based on the observed distribution of orbital inclinations in our sample, we have estimated the true distribution of orbital inclinations in the Kuiper belt and find it to be similar to that of the short-period comets. This result is consistent with the commonly held belief that the Kuiper belt is the source region of the short-period comets.