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Meet the scientist from Quebec, leading the "deepest study of any planetary body in history"

MONTREAL – Frederic Pelletier boldly predicts that he and his team will receive the New Horizons spacecraft exactly where it should be in the New Year – 1.6 billion kilometers behind Pluto to meet the space stone known as Ultima Thule.

The goal of the NASA mission is to go through a region known as the Kuiper belt and send data back to Earth, which can help explain the origin of the solar system. The space agency describes Ultima Thule’s flight as “the furthest exploration of any planetary body in history.”

NASA says that by exploring the region behind Pluto, scientists can learn more about comets, minor planets, and other materials from the era when the planets formed – 4.5 billion years ago.

By the time the New Horizons spacecraft approaches the Ultima Thule, scheduled for 12:33 am Eastern Time on January 1, 2019, it will be 6.6 billion kilometers from Earth.

“It's very difficult, we have little information about Ultima Tula,” said Pelletier in a recent interview with The Canadian Press. "I'm a little nervous, but I feel confident … all the stars are aligned."

NASA signed a contract with Pelletier for the position of the main navigator of the spacecraft for the New Horizons mission, the initial plan of which was to fly past Pluto. The team reached its goal when, on July 14, 2015, the machine successfully flew over the planet of the dwarfs, and sent back the data “that led to a deep new understanding of Pluto and its satellites,” according to the space agency website.

Traveling beyond Pluto to the Kuiper belt is part of an extended mission.

Pelletier and his crew of eight are responsible for delivering a piano-sized spacecraft to the target.

It will fly to the Ultima Thule at a distance of about 3,500 kilometers at a speed of 14 kilometers per second, or 50,000 kilometers per hour. Pelletier compared it to a motorist in a car who is trying to look at a lamppost.

"It happens very quickly," he said.

According to Pelletier, according to scientists, the Ultima Thule is about the same size as Washington D.S.

“It is estimated that its diameter is now 30 kilometers,” said Pelletier. “We suspect that it will not be spherical, that he will have some strange shape. There is also a possibility that it will be a double asteroid – two objects that are in contact with each other or are in close formation. ”

What made the task even more difficult for a native of Quebec is that it takes six hours to get a signal from Earth to get to the spacecraft, and another six hours to get back.

“Therefore, when we plan maneuvers for creating links and updates, we must take this into account,” noted Pelletier.

The spacecraft "New Horizons", launched on January 19, 2006, during a flight to Pluto, and since 2015 moves ever deeper into space. The mission is carried out at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, where Pelletier and his team work.

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

NASA claims that, according to scientists, in the so-called “third zone” of our solar system there are several hundred objects with a diameter of more than 30 kilometers.

“I'm a researcher,” said Pelletier. “I like to go to uncharted places – we are on the edge of the solar system. The Kuiper belt was only discovered in the 1990s. ”

Before the flight on January 1, Pelletier will continue to follow Ultima Thule, hardly giving him time to celebrate his 44th birthday on Friday, December 28.

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

Pelletier participated in a number of other space missions, including the journey of the Cassini spacecraft to Saturn, and also participated in the landing on Mars Curiosity.

Peter Rakobovchuk, Canadian Press

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