About five months ago, a NASA robot on a distant, windswept planet aimed its camera and took a picture of a bright pinprick in the night sky.
That robot's driver and operator, a former Medford resident, is still somewhat in awe of that shot. He's in it, after all, one of 7 billion people compacted in the frame.
Say "Cheese," Earth. Mars is watching.
"Everything that we know of, all of humanity that we know of, is in this couple of pixels that we see here from Mars," says Matt Heverly, driver of NASA's Curiosity Rover. "That is all of humanity in that little speck in the sky. That's kind of just crazy to think about."
But the photo is almost a blip on Curiosity's resume. NASA scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Heverly included, have been piloting the $2.5 billion science laboratory across the badlands of Mars for some time, on a mission to see whether life could ever have survived there.
Last week, Curiosity reached a milestone: 687 Earth days — one Martian year — on the auburn surface. Heverly, a 38-year-old Kennedy Elementary School alum, is delighted.
"To think about, hey, we built a giant, car-sized robot. We built it and successfully landed it on Mars," Heverly says during a telephone interview from his office at NASA's JPL in Pasadena, Calif. "For the most part, we have been able to do what we set out to do. That is incredible in and of itself."
And, he adds, the story of Curiosity isn't over yet.
A slow, deliberate journey
The rover's movement across the Martian surface is a page out of Aesop's Fables: slow and steady.
No race, though. Curiosity's on a fact-finding mission, drilling into rock, analyzing the samples and snapping pictures in slow, deliberate movements. Heverly and his team are in the driver's seat, though not in the traditional sense. They plan Curiosity's movements and actions daily using computer commands, then transmit them into space. Depending on Earth's proximity to Mars, the signals have to travel between 34 million and 249 million miles to reach Curiosity — a 5- to 20-minute delay.
Slow-motion remote control.
It's been this way since its Aug. 5, 2012, touchdown at Bradbury Landing, named for famed science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury. Last week, it reached the 8-kilometer mark of its journey. But what some would consider a pleasant distance to jog has been more of a road trip for the bot.
"It hasn't all been smooth sailing," Heverly admits. "Things don't always go well."
Issues with the rover's wheels were a key speed bump. Made of aluminum with a thickness of about 10 sheets of paper — they had to be that way to allow for the complicated multistep landing — scientists knew they would get some wear and tear. They didn't count on the sizeable amount of jagged material buried in the bedrock.
"We saw that the rate of wear on the wheels was much higher than expected," Heverly says. "The rocks can push back much harder on the wheels when they are part of the underlying bedrock."
The solution: Stick to the sand. With the aid of satellites orbiting above, Curiosity's team was able to better guess where to go and where to avoid.
"Harder rocks, you can see from orbit because they will have lots of craters," Heverly says. "We've been able to plan a new route."
The timing of their realization could not have been better. Curiosity was in the middle of a rocky spot. Using the satellite images, they found a way out, a thin strip of sand with a dune in the middle they named Dingo Gap.
Curiosity escaped and took a picture of its progress, the deep cuts of its treads tattooed on the sand behind it.
"It was a big relief to have made it over that," Heverly says.
But despite the close call, Heverly says the Curiosity mission has been a success.
And then some.
The main mission was to determine whether Mars could ever have supported simple life. NASA scientists are confident it could have at one time, based on samples Curiosity drilled at the Gale Crater. The smoothness and roundness of the rocks suggested water flowed there, that it was, perhaps, knee- to hip-deep.
"Analysis of these samples revealed the site was once a lake bed with mild water, the essential, elemental ingredients for life, and a type of chemical energy source used by some microbes on Earth," a NASA news release says.
Previous rover missions had found evidence of water, too, some of it highly acidic and, in one case, sub-surface ice. Curiosity's findings were different.
"It's the kind of water you and I could drink," Heverly says of the evidence. "The old joke is kind of, 'How many times are you going to find water on Mars?' But this water was different than the past because of its neutral pH, which is much more favorable to life as we know it."
But while the primary mission is over, Heverly anticipates there is more to come. He calls it "bonus time," a chance to build a more thorough story.
Mount Sharp, named for California Institute of Technology geology professor Robert Sharp, still looms on the horizon for the Curiosity. Scientists think rich data on the planet's climate history resides there.
"They do refer to it as kind of the geological promised land," Heverly says.
Future missions are still in the works. In 2020, a rover similar in design to Curiosity will touch down on the surface. Its wheels will be improved, and it will have potentially better cameras and scientific instruments. As of now, its mission will be to collect rock samples, which it will then deposit in a cache on the planet's surface. Hypothetically, future unmanned missions would then be able to land and bring them back to Earth.
Heverly has been involved with the project since his son, Paxton, was born. Now, five years later, Paxton's interest has been kindled. Using his phone, Heverly shows Paxton images the robot took before he goes to sleep. The boy has a Curiosity Matchbox car, a Curiosity Lego set. One man's $2.5 billion science lab is another's plastic toy.
"When you try and explain it to a 5-year-old, it really does put things into perspective," Heverly says. "There really is a robot up on that red dot in the sky."