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Canadian physicist's close encounter with Mars rover

The vows had been said and the pictures taken, but when it came time to crack open the kegs the best man, and the person responsible for getting the beer flowing, couldn’t be found.

That’s because Nick Boyd, a 29-year-old physicist from Picton, Ont., had slipped away from his brother’s wedding reception to attend to the one thing more demanding than a tent full of thirsty guests: the Mars rover Curiosity.

“A few people came to hurry me along,” said Boyd, the operations lead for the team managing the day-to-day functions of the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer, the Canadian-built instrument on the rover. He had to build a file to send to back to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where he’s spent the last three months working with scientists from around the world conducting experiments on Mars.

“It consumes your whole life for this early period,” said Boyd, adding the mission has so far gone “amazingly smoothly.” “You’ll do whatever it takes to make the mission go well.”

Boyd has devoted the bulk of his professional life, the last six years, as part of the University of Guelph team that developed the APXS, one of 10 instruments carried by Curiosity. It identifies the chemical composition of Martian rock and soil — information geologists are using to determine whether Mars was ever able to support life.

“We’re taking a very, very big role in this mission … and it’s something that everyone should be able to take some pride in.”

He said he still finds it surreal to be communicating with the machine on another planet.

“It was never a given that we were going to land safely,” said Boyd, thinking back to the knot in his stomach on the Aug. 5 landing day. He said all he could think was “it’s my career that’s strapped to that car with a jet pack.”

But after the landing crew “won the biggest game of their lives,” Boyd only nabbed a couple hours sleep before his work began. Since then, the tactical team has been working in two shifts on “Mars time” to ensure it gets the most out of Curiosity.

The first shift analyzes the data that comes back from the rover and creates a plan for Curiosity’s next day. The second shift then takes the plan and turns it into a series of sequences that are transmitted to “drive” the rover.

Every day is determined by the morning on Mars

  This image released by NASA on October 11, 2012 shows where NASA's Curiosity rover aimed two different instruments to study a rock known as

This image released by NASA on October 11, 2012 shows where NASA's Curiosity rover aimed two different instruments to study a rock known as "Jake Matijevic." The red dots are where the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument zapped it with its laser on September 21, 2012, and September 24, 2012, which were the 45th and 48th sol, or Martian day of operations. AFP/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Since a Martian day is 40 minutes longer than Earth’s, the team’s shifts change by 40 minutes daily. Boyd likens it to being persistently jet lagged, and said he often forgets to eat and has to recalculate every day whether or not he’ll get stuck in rush hour shuttling between his hotel and JPL.

“You can tell when we’re in a time period that doesn’t line up with Earth,” said Boyd, noting tempers at the lab get a little shorter. However NASA has come up with a way to make sure cooler heads prevail: a giant freezer that’s kept full of Drumsticks and ice cream sandwiches.

“It’s considered to be a very good investment in the general sanity of the team,” Boyd said.

He noted that every movement of the Mars rover could be its last, which is why each day’s operations is determined by the one before it. “There’s no chance to fix an instrument once it’s gone to Mars,” he said, adding a slip in the sand could cost an entire day. Because of that, calculations must to be tested and retested on a stunt-double rover at JPL’s simulated Mars field — something Boyd said is serious work, but also “like a little boy’s dream play date.”

Though he said it can get him into trouble when he gets so caught up with robots that he forgets to call his wife, Allison, who is back in Guelph and pregnant with the couple’s first child.

Transition back to Earth

Starting next month, the team will continue their work from their home labs. The mission is projected to last roughly two years, but Boyd is cautious when talking about how long Curiosity operate.

“It’s not a good idea to make predictions of mission lifetime,” he said, though he notes NASA’s previous rovers that launched in 2003, Spirit and Opportunity, outlived their mission timelines. Spirit made it six years, and Opportunity is still going.

Mars, however, hasn’t been an easy expedition. Roughly two-thirds of Mars missions since the 1960s have failed. But whether it’s another day or a decade, Boyd plans to soak up every moment on the Red Planet.

“I tell people I’m in Year 5 of a five-year plan,” he said. “I’m definitely enjoying the fruits of my labour.”

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