When the New Horizons spacecraft flew past the Kuiper Belt on Jan. 1 at 12:33 p.m., Victoria’s own J.J. Kavelaars was among the millions of excited people around the world.
The local astronomer works at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria and has a role on the New Horizons mission, to make mathematical models and mapping the contents of the Kuiper Belt.
The mission is famous for sending back photos of object MU69, known as Ultima Thule. When the spaceship flew past it took multiple high-resolution images. We are now able to see its structure, including how many craters it has and whether it is flat, round, rough or smooth.
This mission is exceptionally difficult because there was a 10 per cent chance that nothing would show up in these photos.
“It is very difficult to do a mission on MU69 because we have only found [Ultima Thule] four years ago and most objects we do missions on we’ve known them for decades,” Kavelaars said.
I made this just now. (You can tell my talk prep is going awesomely well.)
For future reference, the Tsawwassen-Swartz Bay ferry route is roughly 1.4 MU69s pic.twitter.com/3iRxHrBMRB
— Dr. Sam (@sundogplanets) January 25, 2019
Kavelaars has worked on many different missions. He got involved in this project in 2010 when the New Horizon spacecraft was looking for another object after passing Pluto. Finding an object beyond Pluto was harder than expected because of how few objects there are in that part of the outer solar system, he said.
All of these things will be taken into account because they give us important information about this object.
One prediction that astronomers have is that MU69 will have an extremely low crater count unlike any other object we’ve seen. This is because there are very few other objects in this part of the solar system so the chance of collision is low.
When New Horizons sent back images of Pluto, it revealed few craters which is quite a mystery to many astronomers. This is why they predict that MU69 will have a similar crater count than Pluto.
The spacecraft took these images with a long-range reconnaissance imager which is a small telescope with a camera attached to it like a cellphone camera but the camera on the spacecraft is a 1,000 by 1,000 pixel camera, far greater than the camera on a cellphone. It took around six hours for the images to travel from New Horizons back to Earth.
The first visible image showed up on the evening of Jan. 1. Then on the morning of Jan. 2 the first high-resolution image of the object came through. The spacecraft had taken a series of images in hopes of catching MU69.
New Horizons is flying at a speed of 57,936 kilometers an hour and was about 3,000 km away from the surface of MU69.
Kavelaars received his PhD in 1998 from the Department of Physics at Queen’s University.
– Maia Bell-McLenan is a Grade 9 student at Reynolds secondary.