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Persevering for Perseverance

Earlier this year, Matt Heverly wanted to watch the NASA Perseverance rover launch in Florida, and his family planned a vacation around the event.

Heverly, a former Medford resident and longtime NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory employee, had served the past four years as a technical group supervisor for JPL’s mechanisms and mobility group — the engineers who designed components needed to make the robot move on the red planet. Saying goodbye up close was part of the plan.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed things, so Heverly traded an in-person view for a television screen at his home, with his wife and two sons huddled together in the early morning hours of Thursday, July 30. A 4.2 earthquake had awakened them before their alarms.

That earthquake turned out not to be a bad omen. The launch went smoothly, and now the $2.4 billion roving science laboratory is traveling through outer space, Earth getting ever smaller in the rearview mirror.

“We all kind of waved goodbye,” Heverly, 44, said during a telephone interview, adding he did the same thing during the November 2011 launch of the Curiosity rover, which is still going strong on Mars.

“It was pretty picture perfect. Everything went extremely smooth. A beautiful, clear day.”

Despite the pandemic, NASA JPL officials checked the last few months of necessary boxes on rover preparation, making their launch window and not having to postpone for two years.

“I think everybody rallied around the name to say we are going to persevere through this. We aren’t going to slip our launch,” Heverly said. “We’re not going to let this get in the way.”

Road to Perseverance

Heverly, who attended Kennedy Elementary School in Medford, has an extensive history in robotics. His family moved to Southern California for his father’s work, but now his parents, Mike and Jane Heverly, live at the Rogue Valley Manor. Mike Heverly, also a geologist, joined Matt for a workshop whose participants helped decide where Perseverance would land. It ended up being the Jezero Crater.

“It was fascinating when you realize how much goes into one of these things,” Mike Heverly said. “It’s not just, ‘Let’s go to Mars.’”

Matt Heverly majored in mechanical engineering at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. His JPL career began in 2005, when he started work as a “driver” on the Mars Exploration rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), which landed on Mars Jan. 4, 2004. Heverly began programming Opportunity’s movements about nine months after he started at JPL. Before that, he’d worked for a company that built the rovers’ arms.

Spirit wrapped its mission in 2010, but Opportunity kept chugging along. Scientists declared the mission complete Feb. 13, 2019, after Opportunity’s communications went dark for months following a dust storm that smothered the planet.

The Curiosity rover came next. Heverly worked on that project from 2008 to 2015, first as a mobility systems engineer, then as a driver after it landed Aug. 5, 2012. He began his supervisory role at the end of 2016.

Planning for the Perseverance mission had been in the works since 2014. Its main job will be to search for signs of ancient life on the Martian surface.

“Evidence discovered by landed and orbital missions point to wet conditions billions of years ago,” a NASA fact sheet says. “These environments lasted long enough to potentially support the development of microbial life.”

Perseverance will investigate the environment further by collecting rock and soil samples which will later be retrieved by another rover — Heverly is part of that project also — and be loaded onto a rocket that will return them to Earth.

“It feels like we’re constantly building upon what we’ve learned,” Heverly said.

The car-sized rover carries seven instruments, including imaging cameras, spectrometers and sensors intended to analyze the composition of Martian surface materials. There’s also ground-penetrating radar and the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), which is intended to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere.

A drone is attached to the rover’s belly. Dubbed Ingenuity, it will conduct the first powered flight test on Mars.

Persevering

The pandemic changed the final few months of testing and preparation on the rover. When the novel coronavirus began its initial surge, some hardware and software on Perseverance still needed to be tested.

At first, almost all JPL employees worked from home, Heverly said. He hasn’t been back to the office since March.

“You have to do it in a way that’s really taking into account everybody’s unique situation,” Heverly said. “It’s really balancing the constraints of the work that has to get done with the constraints that everybody has.”

Recently, they have minimized the number of people working on site, requiring masks and frequent work-station cleaning.

Postponing the launch was a concern, because it would have delayed the project for about two years. Launch windows are dictated largely by the position of Earth and Mars, and it would have been about two years before the planets would have been back in position.

“I think everybody was under a ton of stress anyway leading up to this,” Heverly said. “It’s always stressful to have last-minute things that have to happen to pull this off. To add (the) coronavirus on top of it was really hard, but everybody did pull together.”

Personnel brought pieces of hardware to Florida aboard NASA aircraft to minimize the chance of exposure to the virus, which would have been much greater on commercial flights.

“The people are innovative in solving problems,” Heverly said. “Everybody just comes up with new ways to do things.”

Next steps

Heverly has now shifted to the sample return mission.

NASA will coordinate with the European Space Agency for the samples gathered by Perseverance. ESA will design and build the rover, while NASA will coordinate the whole campaign. Multiple agencies will run different steps of the mission along the way.

“Each institution is going to do a different part of this chain in bringing (the samples) back,” Heverly said.

If all goes as planned, the new rover will be transported to Mars via rocket, and the rover will be delivered to the Martian surface via lander. It will then collect the samples and put them aboard the rocket, which will rendezvous with a spacecraft orbiting in the Martian the planet. That craft will return the samples to Earth for study.

“To be able to think that we’re building a rocket that can launch off Mars, it’s an incredible evolution of technology,” Heverly said.

Reach web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanPfeil.

A replica of the Mars rover Perseverance is displayed outside the press site before a news conference at the Kennedy Space Center Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launch scheduled for tomorrow will transport the rover to Mars. (AP Photo/John Raoux)