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Mars rover scientists with local ties to speak in Medford

Matt Heverly’s quite fond of a particular selfie. Not one of him or a family member or friend. Not a human at all, actually. A robot snapped the photo, one the former Medford resident used to “drive” across Mars after its 2012 arrival.

In the photo, the robot — the Mars Curiosity rover — is parked on a slice of terrain dubbed Mary Anning, named for a 19th century paleontologist.

The $2.5 billion robot isn’t getting any younger, its years of trundling slowly across the planet’s surface and studying the terrain to see if the planet ever supported life show pretty acutely. Pale red dust covers the rover, its tires well-worn in spots. And that’s just fine.

“Nobody likes a clean Jeep,” Heverly says. “It means you’re not doing good stuff with it. It’s fun to see the rover getting dirty but still moving along.”

Heverly, who has worked on multiple rover projects at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and now works as the surface phase lead for the Mars sample retrieval lander, will join Curiosity rover project scientist Ashwin Vasavada at an upcoming webinar, sponsored by the Southern Oregon Skywatchers, North Medford High School and ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum.

Called “Mars Madness,” it will feature updates from both scientists on Mars exploration. It’s set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20, and is open to the public. It will be held on Zoom at https://medfordsd.zoom.us/j/99372719685.

Heverly and Vasavada both have ties to Medford. Heverly attended Kennedy Elementary School, and the parents of both men live at Rogue Valley Manor.

“I remember I took a summer class at the planetarium when I was there,” Heverly says. “Just to be able to go participate again with that place that helped shape who I am is pretty fun.”

“It does feel a bit more special for me because it’s through my new adopted hometown through my parents,” Vasavada adds. “When I’m going to do an event in Medford, they tell all their friends about it, and I have a local audience that knows me, so that’s always fun when you get to talk to people that you know or are friends of your other friends or family.”

Curiosity is coming up on its ninth anniversary after landing on the Red Planet Aug. 12, 2012. The rover’s current focus is studying terrain on Mount Sharp, a spot in the Gale Crater landing site that rises about 18,000 feet into the Martian sky. The location is thought to hold evidence of a major climate change event on Mars, Vasavada says. The ground could show the planet’s transition from wet and warm to dry and cold.

“Because we’re climbing this big mountain that’s recorded many, many layers of geology, sort of like the Grand Canyon has the oldest rocks at the bottom and the younger rocks on the top, we basically have just been spending multiple years now reading this historical record of Mars,” Vasavada says. “And we’re about to get to the chapter, so to speak, where it may have recorded — we’re hoping it has recorded — this big transition in the climate.”

Scientists have hints from data captured by satellites that they are about to reach a point where the mineral makeup of the terrain shifts from clays to what appear to be sulfate minerals.

“The sulfate minerals are kind of like a dry lake bed that leaves a lot of salts behind,” Vasavada says. “We’re hoping we can actually study that transition, the clay-to-sulfate transition, and that it has recorded the big climate event.”

It’s one of Curiosity’s last big tasks on its long to-do list. Rover scientists have also continued to measure radiation levels on the planet, crucial information for human missions.

“It’s in really good health,” Heverly says of the Rover. “It’s still doing amazing things. It’s so gratifying to see Ashwin be able to do all the amazing science that they wanted to do, and it kind of made all that hard work worth it. That’s the ultimate objective: to give them a tool to be able to make those scientific discoveries, and to see it still going.”

Heverly began his career at JPL in 2005, programming the movements for the Opportunity rover, one of two robots designated the Mars Exploration rovers. He also worked at a company that built the robot’s arms. He then worked as a mobility systems engineer and driver on the Curiosity rover until 2015, before he started his work as a technical group supervisor for JPL’s mechanisms and mobility group for the Perseverance rover, set to land on the planet next month.

Lately, he’s been working as the surface phase lead for yet another rover that will collect samples gathered by Perseverance and put them on a rocket, which will then return the samples to Earth for study.

Vasavada served as deputy project scientist for Curiosity’s Mars Science Laboratory from 2004 to 2014 before he started his work as project scientist, according to the NASA website. He also previously worked on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter project, which “continues to help identify (lunar) sites close to potential resources with high scientific value, favorable terrain and the environment necessary for safe future robotic and human lunar missions,” according to the project website.

The missions of Curiosity and Perseverance are intertwined, Vasavada says. The former was intended to see whether the planet could have supported life, the latter to search for signs of that life and collect evidence for study.

“These two rovers really do lead right into one another,” Vasavada says. “We have found that Mars was once a habitable place, which it sets up perfectly for Perseverance to go there, and then Matt’s mission, to go collect the samples that Perseverance caches.”

Some lessons learned with Curiosity will make Perseverance better. Its wheels are sturdier, and its navigation system is more advanced. Called terrain-relative navigation, it’s intended to give more accurate estimates of its position relative to the ground as it descends from sky to ground.

“As it’s coming in, it’s able to take pictures of the surface and then compare that to an onboard map and know where it is, and then while the rover’s on its jet pack coming down, it can do divert maneuvers to move it away from hazards,” Heverly says.

“In a sense, we landed with our eyes closed,” Vasavada says of Curiosity. “(They’re) landing with their eyes open.”

Perseverance will wield multiple instruments, including imaging cameras, spectrometers and sensors intended to analyze the composition of Martian surface materials, ground-penetrating radar, and the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), intended to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere. The Ingenuity drone attached to the rover’s belly will conduct the first powered test flight on Mars.

Never the two rovers shall meet. The Gale Crater, which has been Curiosity’s home, is about 2,300 miles from the Jezero Crater, where Perseverance will land, according to the NASA website.

“It’s always a tough choice, because we’ve sent so few missions to Mars,” Vasavada says. “With these rare chances we have, we always want to go explore somewhere new.”

On Feb. 18, if all goes as planned, that latest round of Mars exploration will begin, and everyone’s invited to follow along from millions of miles away.

Reach Mail Tribune web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com.

A dust-covered Curiosity rover pauses for a selfie at Mary Anning, a site on Mars named after a 19th century English paleontologist. Two NASA scientists with local ties who worked on the Rover program will give a talk about Mars exploration Jan. 20. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS photo.