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Canada Quebec engineer leads farthest space exploration of ‘any planetary body in history’

A handout illustration shows NASA's New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, a Kuiper Belt object.

The Canadian Press

Frederic Pelletier is boldly predicting he and his team will get the New Horizons spacecraft exactly where it should be on New Year’s Day – 1.6 billion kilometres beyond Pluto to rendezvous with a space rock known as Ultima Thule.

The goal of the NASA mission is to pass by the region known as the “Kuiper Belt” and send data back to Earth that can help explain the origins of the solar system. The flyby of Ultima Thule is being described by the space agency as the “farthest exploration of any planetary body in history.”

NASA says by exploring the region beyond Pluto, scientists can learn more about comets, small planets and other material dating back to the era when planets were formed – 4.5 billion years in the past.

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By the time the New Horizons spacecraft makes its closest approach to Ultima Thule – scheduled for 12:33 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Jan. 1, 2019 – the vehicle will be 6.6 billion kilometres from Earth.

“It’s very difficult, we don’t have much information about [Ultima Thule],” Mr. Pelletier said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press. “I’m a bit nervous, but I feel confident … all the stars are aligned.”

NASA contracted Mr. Pelletier to be the chief navigator of the spacecraft for the New Horizons mission, whose original plan was to fly past Pluto. The team reached its goal when the vehicle successfully flew by the dwarf planet on July 14, 2015, and sent back data “that resulted in profound new insights about Pluto and its moons,” according to the space agency’s website.

The voyage beyond Pluto to the Kuiper Belt is part of the extended mission.

Mr. Pelletier and his eight-member team are responsible for delivering the spacecraft, which is the size of a baby grand piano, to the target.

It will fly by Ultima Thule at a distance of about 3,500 kilometres, going 14 kilometres a second – or 50,000 kilometres an hour. Mr. Pelletier compared it to a motorist inside a car who is trying to look at a lamppost.

“It’s going by real fast,” he said.

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Mr. Pelletier said scientists estimate Ultima Thule to be about the same size as Washington.

“It’s estimated to have a diameter of 30 kilometres right now,” Mr. Pelletier said. “We suspect that it’s not going to be spherical, that it’s going to have some weird shape to it. There’s also the possibility that it will be a binary asteroid – two objects touching each other or in close formation.”

What has made the task even more challenging for the Quebec City native is the fact that it takes six hours for the signal from Earth to reach the spacecraft and another six hours to return.

“So when we plan manoeuvres to do uplinks and updates, we need to take that into account,” Mr. Pelletier noted.

The New Horizons spacecraft blasted off Jan. 19, 2006, for its trip to Pluto, and since 2015, has been moving deeper into space. The mission is being hosted by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physical Laboratory in Laurel, Md., where Mr. Pelletier and his team are working.

Ultima Thule was first detected in 2014 using the Hubble Space Telescope, meaning the rock was only discovered after the New Horizons launch.

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NASA says scientists estimate there are several hundred objects with a diameter longer than 30 kilometres waiting to be discovered in what’s known as “the third zone” of our solar system.

“I’m an explorer,” Mr. Pelletier said. “I love going to places [that are] unexplored – we’re on the edge of the solar system. The Kuiper Belt was only discovered in the 1990s.”

Until the Jan. 1 flyby, Mr. Pelletier will keep busy monitoring Ultima Thule, barely giving him time to celebrate his 44th birthday on Friday, Dec. 28.

But his wife and two boys, aged 9 and 12, will be flying up to Maryland to join him in the coming days.

Mr. Pelletier has worked on a number of other space missions, including the voyage the Cassini spacecraft took to Saturn, and he also participated in the Mars Curiosity landing.

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