MONTREAL – Frederic Pelletier bravely predicts he and his team will get the New Horizons spacecraft exactly where they should be on New Year's Day – 1.6 billion kilometers outside Pluto to meet the space rock known as Ultima Thule.
The purpose of NASA's mission is to pass through an area known as the "Kuiper Belt" and send data back to Earth which can help explain the origin of the solar system. The Ultima Thule fly is being described by the space agency as "the furthest exploration of any planet in history."
NASA said that by exploring the area outside Pluto, scientists can learn more about comets, small planets, and other material from the era when the planets formed – 4.5 billion years in the past.
As the New Horizons spacecraft approaches the closest approach to Ultima Thule – scheduled for 12.33 east standard time on January 1, 2019 – the vehicle will be 6.6 billion kilometers from Earth.
"This is very difficult, we don't have much information about (Ultima Thule)," Pelletier said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press. "I'm a little nervous, but I feel confident … all stars are in tune."
NASA contracted Pelletier to become the head of a spacecraft navigator for the New Horizons mission, whose original plan was to fly past Pluto. The team achieved its goal when the vehicle managed to fly by the dwarf planet on July 14, 2015, and sent back data "which resulted in deep new insights about Pluto and its moons," according to the space agency's website.
A trip outside Pluto to the Kuiper Belt is part of an expanded mission.
Pelletier and a team of eight people are responsible for delivering spacecraft, which are about the size of a baby grand piano, to the target.
It will fly with Ultima Thule at a distance of about 3,500 kilometers, run 14 kilometers per second – or 50,000 kilometers per hour. Pelletier compared it to a motorist in a car who tried to see a lamp post.
"This is going very fast," he said.
Pelletier said scientists estimate Ultima Thule has the same size as Washington D.C.
"It is estimated to have a diameter of 30 kilometers now," Pelletier said. "We suspect that it will not be spherical, that it will have a strange shape to it. It's also possible that it will become a binary asteroid – two objects touching each other or in a close formation."
What makes this task more challenging for the indigenous people of Quebec City is the fact that it takes six hours for signals from Earth to reach the spaceship and another six hours to return.
"So when we plan a maneuver to do uplinks and updates, we need to take that into account," Pelletier said.
The New Horizons vehicle exploded on January 19, 2006, because of its trip to Pluto, and since 2015, it has moved deeper into space. This mission was guided by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physical Laboratory at Laurel, Md., Place Pelletier and his team worked.
Ultima Thule was first detected in 2014 using the Hubble Space Telescope, meaning the stone was discovered only after the launch of New Horizons.
NASA says scientists estimate there are several hundred objects over 30 kilometers in diameter waiting to be found in what is known as the "third zone" of our solar system.
"I'm an explorer," Pelletier said. "I like going to unexplored places – we are on the edge of the solar system. The Kuiper belt was only discovered in the 1990s."
Until January 1 flight, Pelletier will remain busy monitoring Ultima Thule, barely giving him time to celebrate his 44th birthday on Friday, December 28.
But his wife and two sons, aged 9 and 12, will fly to Maryland to join him in the coming days.
Pelletier has worked on a number of other space missions, including the voyages carried out by the Cassini spacecraft to Saturn, and he also participated in the landing of Mars Curiosity.
Peter Rakobowchuk, The Canadian Press