By RYAN PFEIL
Matt Heverly starts each workday eagerly awaiting a message — one that must travel 215 million miles through the cold, dark, no man’s land of outer space to reach him.
That signal, sent from NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover robot, contains a daily report, almost a finished checklist. There is data on analyzed soil samples, the weather, information on the robot’s movements, and scenic pictures of the Martian terrain that are missing only the “Wish You Were Here” messages found on Earthly postcards.
The data is analyzed and scrutinized by NASA scientists, who then write the $2.5 billion rover’s next “honey-do” list. Heverly, who attended school in Medford and whose parents still live here, and other engineers then translate that list into lines of code, which are sent from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., back into space.
Heverly, 37, is the rover’s driver. His team’s commands control the robot’s movements.
“All these things come together into one giant master list that we essentially email to the rover,” Heverly says.
About 19 minutes later, Curiosity gets the message and continues its mission: seeing whether this rust-colored, windswept planet could ever have supported life.
“It’s one of those things where you definitely take it for granted,” Heverly says of his work. “You’re so focused on doing this job that you kind of forget that it’s actually on Mars. The sense that it’s 350 million kilometers (away) is often lost. You forget the magnitude, the distances.”
The idea of making a machine
Heverly’s interest in piloting such an advanced engineering feat on a barren planet didn’t begin until college.
During his K-12 education, robots weren’t on Heverly’s radar. He attended Kennedy Elementary School in Medford before moving to Southern California for his father’s work. Mike Heverly, now back in Medford, was the plant manager at 3-M in White City.
During that time, Matt Heverly’s interest was broader, more on how mechanical devices worked. His parents say he also had determination to learn and achieve, traits that earned him an Eagle Scout badge.
“He learned early on to set goals and achieve them,” Mike Heverly says. “He was always curious and wanting to learn, what makes it work, what makes it run and so on.”
Jane Heverly adds her son was also an athlete. He ran track and cross country, and played soccer.
“He was very dedicated to whatever he decided to do,” she says.
Heverly attended Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and worked toward a major in mechanical engineering. He also worked two internships at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the agency later tasked with creating Curiosity. The interest was kindled.
“The idea of making a machine that can do something intelligent and useful was kind of what got me hooked,” Heverly says. “Whether it’s a vacuum cleaner or a rover on Mars, it’s equally kind of interesting.”
After school, Heverly worked for a company that built the robotic arms for the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, which have been on the Red Planet since 2004.
Heverly attended graduate school at Boston University, where he studied mechanical engineering and robotics. A large focus was on developing a robot that could perform heart surgery on a baby in the womb, inserting a stent to open underdeveloped heart valves.
“It was a really crazy application,” Heverly says.
Heverly started his work at JPL in 2005. Through 2009, he drove the Opportunity rover. This isn’t “driving” in the traditional sense. Heverly doesn’t have his hands on a steering wheel, giant RC car remote or video game controller. His team plans Curiosity’s route using commands. Depending on the terrain’s complexity, the robot can do some navigation to its programmed destination on its own.
“It can make a decision,” Heverly says. “It can decide if it’s safe to go straight ahead, or it can decide if it’s safer to go around that rock.”
The robot has trundled across the planet for the last six months. Heverly works with a large team of other engineers and scientists all over the world. Some manage communications with the robot, others manage the instruments, others the 17 cameras. Each day, they discuss their next steps via teleconference.
“We develop a list of commands that the rover will execute, one after the other,” Heverly says.
Getting the timing right was tricky at first. A solar day, or “sol,” on Mars is 24 hours and 40 minutes long. During the first three months, Heverly and his other team members had to stagger when they came into work to account for it, with their work days progressively starting and ending 40 minutes later than the previous day.
“We only did that for the first 90 days of the mission,” Heverly says. “It’s really difficult on families.”
Now team members plan a day ahead, and six months after Curiosity’s wheels touched the surface, they’ve found a rhythm.
“You get better at it,” Heverly says. “You learn how to better work with the scientists. You learn what are the gotchas’ of the vehicle.”
And while the earthbound teams have been productive during this ongoing mission, this geological chemistry lab on wheels has been, too. It collects rock samples daily and analyzes their mineral and chemical compositions, either by dumping them into its onboard oven or zapping them with its ChemCam laser.
Scientists are learning a lot. According to news releases from NASA, analyzed rock formations show evidence that water once flowed across the surface. The robot recently drilled a hole on the surface for minerals that will hopefully tell more of the planet’s geological story.
“This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August,” John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a recent release.
The geology of Mars is not Heverly’s area of expertise. He stresses he’s the engineer directing Curiosity’s movements, not a scientist analyzing the rocks it collects. Still, the idea of life on other planets is intriguing to him.
“It’s a really hard question, and I think we’re doing all the right things to answer that question,” Heverly says.
From time to time, Heverly worries about Curiosity. It has to endure brutally cold temperatures (it shuts down at night to protect itself from temperatures that can drop to 175 degrees below zero or colder). It also has to continue trundling along an unfamiliar landscape with only Heverly and his team to guide it.
“You think about every command and how can the rover move? What are all the ways that this vehicle could get into trouble?” he says. “When you hit send,’ it goes off, and you can no longer intervene. You basically have to just wait.”
Heverly says another rover mission is already in the works for 2020, but it’s too early to know exactly what it will entail.
For now, Heverly’s focus is on Curiosity. It has traveled a relatively short distance so far, exactly 723 meters as of Friday.
The robot’s top speed is 150 meters per hour, or one-tenth of a mile per hour. But it rarely travels more than a few meters on any given day. That conserves power. It also protects the rover from dangers because, as Heverly notes, it takes about 19 minutes to hit the brakes if the controllers back on Earth see a problem ahead.
But moving forward or not, Curiosity is always working during daylight hours.
“We’re using the rover every second of time that we can,” Heverly says.
It’s moving toward an exciting stage in its mission, rolling closer to the rock-strewn hillsides of Mount Sharp each day, urged on by commands Heverly and his team transmit.
“I truly feel like this is collectively our rover,” Heverly says. “We’re doing this not just for us, but for everybody collectively. I’m proud of that. We don’t have secrets about this rover. We take all the images and put them out there for everybody to look at. That makes it even better to drive this rover every day.”
Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.