Grade 9 Reynolds secondary student Maia Bell-McLenan interviewed local astronomer J.J. Kavelaars who is one of many astronomers analyzing data sent back to Earth from the New Horizons spacecraft that is leaving our solar system. (Submitted) A file image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper belt object Ultima Thule, about one billion miles beyond Pluto, encountered by the New Horizons spacecraft. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute, File Photo)

Student Voice: Vic astronomer tracking the New Horizons path

Local astronomer part of team studying New Horizons spacecraft

– By Maia Bell-McLenan

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.

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.

The images of MU69 were sent out to the public around one week after Jan. 1. You can find these images at but you can also find basic information about the spacecraft and Ultima Thule on this website.

The New Horizons mission cost started at $800 million US. This money helped build and launch the spacecraft but a big chunk of the money went to paying salaries.

In 2015 the project ran out of money and asked for an additionaal $90 million US to study New Horizons from Pluto to MU69. This mission started in 1990 so all of the technology on the spacecraft now is from the 1990s.

The mission doesn’t know where New Horizons will go after MU69. Before that, they have to do an overall check up on the spacecraft to assess its heath and level of fuel on board to know how much farther New Horizon can go.

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.

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