After the discovery of Pluto in 1930, many speculated that it might not be alone. The region now called the Kuiper belt was hypothesized in various forms for decades. It was only in 1992 that the first direct evidence for its existence was found. The number and variety of prior speculations on the nature of the Kuiper belt have led to continued uncertainty as to who deserves credit for first proposing it.
The first astronomer to suggest the existence of a trans-Neptunian population was Frederick C. Leonard. Soon after Pluto's discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, Leonard pondered whether it was "not likely that in Pluto there has come to light the first of a series of ultra-Neptunian bodies, the remaining members of which still await discovery but which are destined eventually to be detected". That same year, astronomer Armin O. Leuschner suggested that Pluto "may be one of many long-period planetary objects yet to be discovered."
In 1943, in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association, Kenneth Edgeworth hypothesized that, in the region beyond Neptune, the material within the primordial solar nebula was too widely spaced to condense into planets, and so rather condensed into a myriad of smaller bodies. From this he concluded that "the outer region of the solar system, beyond the orbits of the planets, is occupied by a very large number of comparatively small bodies" and that, from time to time, one of their number "wanders from its own sphere and appears as an occasional visitor to the inner solar system", becoming a comet.
In 1951, in a paper in Astrophysics: A Topical Symposium, Gerard Kuiper speculated on a similar disc having formed early in the Solar System's evolution, but he did not think that such a belt still existed today. Kuiper was operating on the assumption, common in his time, that Pluto was the size of Earth and had therefore scattered these bodies out toward the Oort cloud or out of the Solar System. Were Kuiper's hypothesis correct, there would not be a Kuiper belt today.
The hypothesis took many other forms in the following decades. In 1962, physicist Al G.W. Cameron postulated the existence of "a tremendous mass of small material on the outskirts of the solar system". In 1964, Fred Whipple, who popularised the famous "dirty snowball" hypothesis for cometary structure, thought that a "comet belt" might be massive enough to cause the purported discrepancies in the orbit of Uranus that had sparked the search for Planet X, or, at the very least, massive enough to affect the orbits of known comets. Observation ruled out this hypothesis.
In 1977, Charles Kowal discovered 2060 Chiron, an icy planetoid with an orbit between Saturn and Uranus. He used a blink comparator, the same device that had allowed Clyde Tombaugh to discover Pluto nearly 50 years before. In 1992, another object, 5145 Pholus, was discovered in a similar orbit. Today, an entire population of comet-like bodies, called the centaurs, is known to exist in the region between Jupiter and Neptune. The centaurs' orbits are unstable and have dynamical lifetimes of a few million years. From the time of Chiron's discovery in 1977, astronomers have speculated that the centaurs therefore must be frequently replenished by some outer reservoir.
Further evidence for the existence of the Kuiper belt later emerged from the study of comets. That comets have finite lifespans has been known for some time. As they approach the Sun, its heat causes their volatile surfaces to sublimate into space, gradually dispersing them. In order for comets to continue to be visible over the age of the Solar System, they must be replenished frequently. One such area of replenishment is the Oort cloud, a spherical swarm of comets extending beyond 50,000 AU from the Sun first hypothesised by Dutch astronomer Jan Oort in 1950. The Oort cloud is thought to be the point of origin of long-period comets, which are those, like Hale–Bopp, with orbits lasting thousands of years.
There is another comet population, known as short-period or periodic comets, consisting of those comets that, like Halley's Comet, have orbital periods of less than 200 years. By the 1970s, the rate at which short-period comets were being discovered was becoming increasingly inconsistent with their having emerged solely from the Oort cloud. For an Oort cloud object to become a short-period comet, it would first have to be captured by the giant planets. In a paper published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1980, Uruguayan astronomer Julio Fernández stated that for every short-period comet to be sent into the inner Solar System from the Oort cloud, 600 would have to be ejected into interstellar space. He speculated that a comet belt from between 35 and 50 AU would be required to account for the observed number of comets. Following up on Fernández's work, in 1988 the Canadian team of Martin Duncan, Tom Quinn and Scott Tremaine ran a number of computer simulations to determine if all observed comets could have arrived from the Oort cloud. They found that the Oort cloud could not account for all short-period comets, particularly as short-period comets are clustered near the plane of the Solar System, whereas Oort-cloud comets tend to arrive from any point in the sky. With a "belt", as Fernández described it, added to the formulations, the simulations matched observations. Reportedly because the words "Kuiper" and "comet belt" appeared in the opening sentence of Fernández's paper, Tremaine named this hypothetical region the "Kuiper belt".
The array of telescopes atop Mauna Kea
, with which the Kuiper belt was discovered
In 1987, astronomer David Jewitt, then at MIT, became increasingly puzzled by "the apparent emptiness of the outer Solar System". He encouraged then-graduate student Jane Luu to aid him in his endeavour to locate another object beyond Pluto's orbit, because, as he told her, "If we don't, nobody will." Using telescopes at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, Jewitt and Luu conducted their search in much the same way as Clyde Tombaugh and Charles Kowal had, with a blink comparator. Initially, examination of each pair of plates took about eight hours, but the process was sped up with the arrival of electronic charge-coupled devices or CCDs, which, though their field of view was narrower, were not only more efficient at collecting light (they retained 90% of the light that hit them, rather than the 10% achieved by photographs) but allowed the blinking process to be done virtually, on a computer screen. Today, CCDs form the basis for most astronomical detectors. In 1988, Jewitt moved to the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Hawaii. Luu later joined him to work at the University of Hawaii's 2.24 m telescope at Mauna Kea. Eventually, the field of view for CCDs had increased to 1024 by 1024 pixels, which allowed searches to be conducted far more rapidly. Finally, after five years of searching, Jewitt and Luu announced on August 30, 1992 the "Discovery of the candidate Kuiper belt object" 15760 Albion. Six months later, they discovered a second object in the region, (181708) 1993 FW.
Studies conducted since the trans-Neptunian region was first charted have shown that the region now called the Kuiper belt is not the point of origin of short-period comets, but that they instead derive from a linked population called the scattered disc. The scattered disc was created when Neptune migrated outward into the proto-Kuiper belt, which at the time was much closer to the Sun, and left in its wake a population of dynamically stable objects that could never be affected by its orbit (the Kuiper belt proper), and a population whose perihelia are close enough that Neptune can still disturb them as it travels around the Sun (the scattered disc). Because the scattered disc is dynamically active and the Kuiper belt relatively dynamically stable, the scattered disc is now seen as the most likely point of origin for periodic comets.
Astronomers sometimes use the alternative name Edgeworth–Kuiper belt to credit Edgeworth, and KBOs are occasionally referred to as EKOs. Brian G. Marsden claims that neither deserves true credit: "Neither Edgeworth nor Kuiper wrote about anything remotely like what we are now seeing, but Fred Whipple did". David Jewitt comments: "If anything... Fernández most nearly deserves the credit for predicting the Kuiper Belt."
KBOs are sometimes called "kuiperoids", a name suggested by Clyde Tombaugh. The term "trans-Neptunian object" (TNO) is recommended for objects in the belt by several scientific groups because the term is less controversial than all others—it is not an exact synonym though, as TNOs include all objects orbiting the Sun past the orbit of Neptune, not just those in the Kuiper belt.