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Johnson City native to guide NASA’s new rover around Mars

August 2nd, 2012 7:02 am by Becky Campbell

Johnson City native to guide NASA’s new rover around Mars

When the Mars rover Curiosity lands Sunday for NASA’s two-year mission to investigate the planet, a little bit of Johnson City will be there as well. Science Hill High School graduate Jaret Matthews is on the four-member team of engineers that developed the rover for this mission. It was at Science Hill that Matthews’ love of science blossomed. “I definitely attribute” the exposure to science at Science Hill as motivation to obtain a degree in Air & Space Engineering from Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., after graduation from high school in 1997, Matthews said. “I had a great physics teacher, L.G. Smith, who was definitely an inspiration,” Matthews said in a phone interview from Pasadena, Calif., where he now lives and works.

Matthews is a robotics mechanical engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and had a big role in the development of Curiosity, a six-wheeled vehicle about the size of a small SUV. He’s a “mobility systems engineer” for the project.

“We’re concerned with all things to do with driving” the rover. “We ensure the safe operation of the rover while it’s driving on Mars. The rover is pretty special in that it can autonomously drive.”

The rover’s software allows it to “see” in 3-D, which will allow it to determine if there are hazards around it and how to maneuver around those hazards.

“It can choose its own path around obstacles,” Mattews said.

That function is necessary because Matthews and his team won’t see the things Curiosity will encounter on the planet — which is 34 million to 250 million miles from Earth, depending on their orbital position — in real time.

“We ask it to reach a certain goal point at the end of the day, but we don’t tell it how to get there. It chooses its own path to get there and keeps itself safe along the way. Mars is so far away it takes a signal traveling the speed of light 20 minutes to get to Earth,” Matthews said.

“If we had the capability to look at real-time video, that video is 20 minutes old by the time it gets here. That’s why we don’t operate it that way and provided the rover with as much as autonomy as possible.

“It’s smart enough that if it gets confused or can’t figure out a safe path to its goal, it will stop and call home for safe directions.”

Even with Curiosity just a few days from landing on Mars, Matthews and his team are still working with an exact replica of the rover and a “scarecrow” version. It’s stripped down to the bare minimum so it simulates the same gravity force on Mars, which is about a third of Earth’s.

Those two Earth-bound versions of Curiosity get a lot of action on a football-size area called the “Mars yard.” They practice with the rovers to see how it will react to obstacles and find potential problems that can be fixed before the Mars-bound Curiosity encounters them.

During the two-year mission, Curiosity will climb steep hills, venture into deep craters and, according to the NASA website “will investigate whether Gale Crater ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life.”

The Gale Crater, Matthews said, was once filled with water but over time that water evaporated and the crater started filling up with debris. The crater bed is where Curiosity will land and it will climb a tall mountain located in the center of the crater.

“I’m really looking forward to the safe landing. The advantage of this mission is we’re going to see a huge past of Mars,” he said.

Curiosity is about four days from landing on Mars after being launched Thanksgiving weekend.

“It’s traveling around 20,000 miles an hour,” on the journey, Matthews said.

For more information about Curiosity’s mission and how it will land, visit the NASA website at www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/  msl/index.html  .

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