Astronomers have spotted hundreds of tiny worlds lurking in the deep, dark outer reaches of the solar system, beyond the orbit of Neptune.

These minor planets, known as trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs), “are relics of major dynamical events among and beyond the giant planets,” according to a study published this week in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

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Some 139 new TNOs, out of 316 detections total, are reported in the study,
which was led by Pedro Bernardinelli. That’s a big haul considering that the current catalog of TNOs contains only about 3,000 objects.

The DES is adapted to probe dark energy, a mysterious force that appears to be driving the accelerated expansion of the universe. But while the survey’s main objective is to understand our universe on the largest scales, Bernardinelli’s team showed how it can be adapted to track tiny rocks here in our own solar system.

The DES has such a wide field of view that it captures an enormous amount of activity in our solar system, even though it is focused on a much more distant cosmic horizon. During its four years of observations, the survey picked up about seven billion dots of faint foreground light, which Bernardinelli and his colleagues narrowed down to about 22 million by ruling out familiar objects such as stars and galaxies.

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