MEDFORD — Matt Heverly starts each workday eagerly awaiting a message — one that must travel 215 million miles 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.
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."
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.
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.
He 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 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. Its top speed is 150 meters per hour, or one-tenth of a mile per hour.
Right now, it’s moving toward an exciting stage in its mission, rolling closer to the rock-strewn hillsides of Mount Sharp each day.
And Curiosity is always working during daylight hours.
“We’re using the rover every second of time that we can," Heverly says.