Goodbyes can be hard, even when they're to robot explorers that have wandered on another planet for more than a decade.
Just ask Matt Heverly, a former Medford resident who previously "drove" such a robot for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Its name was Opportunity, and it had been a denizen of Mars since arriving in 2004 with its twin, the Spirit Rover. Together, they made up the Mars Exploration Rover project, a mission that sought to hunt for rock and soil samples, along with clues to whether water once flowed across the Martian surface.
JPL officially declared Opportunity's mission over this week after months of failed attempts to re-establish contact with the rover after it went dark in June 2018. Its silence followed a dust storm that raged across the planet and caused the agency to lose contact. More than 1,000 attempts were made to restore communication, with the last one failing on Tuesday.
“Huge amounts of people worked on these missions, and we all feel proud of the engineering accomplishments,” Heverly says Wednesday during a telephone interview. “One of the other things I feel proud of is the outreach aspects of it — the number of people that we have inspired with these missions to go have their education and careers focused on STEM activities and continued exploration. So first and foremost, that’s kind of the emotion. But then at the same time, you’re like, ‘Oh, but this one’s not going to continue on.’ You know this day’s going to come, but it’s definitely sad when it does.”
Road to rovers
Heverly attended Kennedy Elementary School in Medford before moving to Southern California for his father’s work. He attended school at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, where he worked toward a major in mechanical engineering. Before helming Opportunity, he worked for a company that built the robot’s arms. He began his career at JPL in 2005 after grad school and began controlling — “driving” — Opportunity about nine months into the job. To clarify, “drive” doesn’t mean drive in the traditional sense. Rover driving involves programmed commands sent over the 140 million or so miles through space. Roll forward. Use your arms. Stop. Et cetera.
“It was only supposed to be a 90-day mission,” Heverly says. “All the people who were working on it were like, ‘Hey, I thought this was only a three-month gig, and it’s been going for nine months or a year now. I got other stuff I’ve got to go do.’ Then (JPL officials) kind of looked around and were like, ‘Well, does anybody want to go operate these rovers on Mars?’ And I was like, ‘Hell yeah, I’ll go do that.’”
The excitement also came with knowledge and background, due to the previous work he’d done on the rover’s arms.
“It was a pretty good fit,” he says.
But before he got in the driver’s seat, Heverly worked on analyzing how Opportunity responded to commands. Eventually, he transitioned into a role as one of the scientists who sent them.
“Before you know it, you’re kind of in the hot seat sending commands, driving a rover on Mars,” Heverly says. “It’s pretty surreal to think about what it is I was doing back then.”
From Opportunity to Curiosity
He was at the controls until 2010, when he transitioned into working on development for the Curiosity Rover — or Mars Science Laboratory — mission. A year later, Opportunity’s twin, Spirit, wrapped up its mission after traveling five miles. A year after that, the Curiosity Rover landed.
While the Curiosity mission progressed, Heverly continued to keep tabs on Opportunity as it soldiered on solo. After all, the MER mission had a special place in his heart.
“That’s why today is such a sad day,” Heverly says Wednesday.
The dust storm that caused communications between Opportunity and JPL to cease was considered a “planet-circling” or “global dust” event, caused by several smaller storms blasting dust into the planet’s atmosphere. Those sands blotted the sun from view, affecting Opportunity’s solar panels and dropping its power levels, NASA reported previously.
“We have made every reasonable engineering effort to try to recover Opportunity and have determined that the likelihood of receiving a signal is far too low to continue recovery efforts,” John Callas, Mars Exploration Rover project manager at JPL, said in a NASA news release.
Opportunity traveled more than 28 miles across the red planet’s surface — think the distance from Ashland to just past Gold Hill on Interstate 5 — before coming to rest on the planet’s Perseverance Valley.
A fitting resting place for a robot that lived 60 times longer than expected, NASA officials say.
Since 2015, Heverly is now gearing up for the as-yet unnamed Mars 2020 rover mission, which will focus on signs of past life on the planet. The rover will look the same as the Curiosity Rover and will be delivered the same way, via skycrane.
Each rover mission has built upon the others before it.
Wednesday had some solemnity to it, Heverly says, but there was also inspiration, excitement for what’s next, reconnecting.
“It’s a lot about the family that you build as you go through these experiences and seeing people that you haven’t worked with in a long time,” Heverly says. “You get to see people that really did make up a family of people working on this mission.
“I’m going to miss the rover, but I’m very optimistic about the future plans for exploring Mars.”
Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or firstname.lastname@example.org.