This Canadian Helped Humanity Fly To Pluto

Frédéric Pelletier navigated the spacecraft from Quebec City.

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Jul 1 2016, 9:00am

Pluto, as seen by New Horizons on July 13, 2015. Image: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

It's a long way to go between Quebec City and the dwarf planet Pluto. Exactly one year ago, Frédéric Pelletier was giving the commands for a spacecraft careening towards the dwarf planet. He helped plot the final maneuvers of the New Horizons spacecraft from his home base in Canada, and from the United States.

It was an intense time, Pelletier told Motherboard. As deputy navigation chief of the mission, he had to watch New Horizons' position constantly to make sure it got by Pluto safely and precisely. He and eight other navigators from his company, KinetX, kept the New Horizons operations team apprised about any last-minute changes to navigation, while the operations team controlled the spacecraft.

"The spacecraft would take a picture of Pluto, Charon and its moons," said Pelletier, who is president and CEO of KinetX Aérospatiale International, which in part does navigation services for spacecraft. "We would process this information on the ground and re-evaluate our position relative to the target, and determine if we had to do correction maneuvers or not."

In 2019 New Horizons could swing by an icy object in the outer solar system

The payoff was worth it. After nine years in space, New Horizons made its flyby on July 14, 2015, and sent back pictures of Pluto that continue to wow scientists and space fans. To this day they are still trying to figure out how such a tiny world has huge mountains and other varied pieces of geology.

"Pluto is one of the best objects I've ever seen in the solar system," Pelletier said. "It has so much diversity, and different surface features."

Even a year later, while the world is still gaping at gorgeous pictures of Pluto, Pelletier can't relax. If funding allows and the spacecraft stays healthy, in January 2019 New Horizons could swing by an icy object in the outer solar system called 2014 MU69.

This object wasn't directly in the spacecraft's path, so Pelletier helped execute four maneuvers to point New Horizons on its way. New Horizons will have to take closer-up pictures of the object this fall to get an exact fix on the object's location.

"As we progress, we will get more images—and I'm sure we're going to do another maneuver," Pelletier said. "We're looking at doing this one in February of 2017."

Pelletier has plenty of experience in moving spacecraft around. His past navigation work includes helping the Cassini spacecraft navigate Saturn's moons, and sending the Mars Curiosity rover to the Red Planet's surface in 2012.

It was all part of his work after joining NASA in 2004. He remained with the agency for almost a decade. His goal to work at NASA required leaving Canada to pursue an aerospace engineering degree in Texas, including work with the Canadian Space Agency and a European research lab near Venice to beef up his resume.

"To get a position at NASA, a lot of people dream of doing that. I always tell them: pursue your dream, it's always possible," Pelletier said.

But Pelletier—who admits he missed frigid Canadian winters while living in temperate Pasadena, Calif. and working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory —finally got an offer to return home to Quebec upon joining Arizona-based KinetX Aerospace in 2013. The company's specialties include spacecraft navigation, and Pelletier was promised the chance to eventually establish a branch here in Canada.

His Quebec City office has quadrupled in the past year, from one person to four. Pelletier now splits his time between New Horizons planning for KinetX and generating new business for the company, which includes building a Canadian satellite network to monitor space debris from about 550 kilometers [341 miles] up in space.

"We want to get a better understanding of how many debris [pieces] are out there, where they are going and what their orbits are," Pelletier said. Most of this work is done now by ground-based telescopes, but observatories can only see a limited slice of sky.

The satellite network would send several probes into polar orbit so they can view debris around the planet. As a bonus, their vantage point provides a perfect Earth observation platform for applications such as forestry, Pelletier said. If all goes to plan, he hopes the network of small satellites will start launching in 2021.

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