Mission Possible: U of R alum who helped land the Mars rover to speak (virtually) on campus

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: March 17, 2021 1:00 p.m.

NASA’s Perseverance Mars exploration rover is sending remarkable video and images back to Earth thanks in part to U of R alumnus Larry Matthies who led the vision systems team on the mission.
NASA’s Perseverance Mars exploration rover is sending remarkable video and images back to Earth thanks in part to U of R alumnus Larry Matthies who led the vision systems team on the mission. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

U of R alumnus Larry Matthies is Senior
Research Scientist at NASA’s Jet
Propulsion Laboratory and a major
team member of the current Mars
exploration mission. Matthies is shown
here in an early photo in his JPL career.
Photo courtesy of Larry Matthies

Your mission, Larry Matthies, should you decide to accept it, is to oversee the development of the vision systems on the exploration rover Perseverance, that recently landed on Mars. 

Name: Larry Matthies

Job: Senior Research Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Supervisor of the Computer Vision Group in the Mobility and Robotic Systems Section.

Undergraduate institute: Campion College, University of Regina.

Degree: BSc(Hons) Computer Science 1979.

Mission: To play a key technological role in the development of crucial on board vision systems of Perseverance, the Mars exploration rover.

Virtual Lecture: “Robotic Mars Exploration,”
Wednesday, March 24, 2021 at 7 p.m.


YouTube Interview with Dr. Larry Matthies

Why explore Mars?

Exploring Mars helps us understand how planets evolve. A big question is did Mars ever have conditions that would have allowed the development of the chemical precursors of life? If we can find evidence that Mars once held life, that would be a scientific revolution in itself and it might help us understand how life arose on Earth.

What is it about your job that continues to motivate you? 

It’s great to be able to contribute, in an indirect way, toward those really large significant scientific questions. I'm not the scientist trying to understand if there is evidence of life on Mars but my work in robotics helps enable that science and for me that's very rewarding.

What is the “seven minutes of terror?” 

The seven minutes of terror is the blackout time from when the spacecraft first enters the atmosphere on Mars to when it touches down. It's terrifying because that's the most dangerous part of the mission and all we can do at that point is keep our fingers crossed and hope that all the work that went into it ends up in a successful landing.

Where were you when Perseverance landed? 

Like a lot of people, we've been working at home since last March so when Perseverance landed, I was in my living room with my family watching it on TV. It was nice to be able to experience that with my family.

What was your reaction after the successful landing? 

I got really, really nervous during the seven minutes of terror. I had my fingers crossed and I was actually pretty surprised at how nervous I got.

Where to next? 

NASA and the rest of the world are exploring all over the solar system. We know that there are moons in the outer solar system that have liquid water oceans. A big part of the question driving exploration is could there be life anywhere else besides Earth? Jupiter has a moon called Europa that has a subsurface ocean. Saturn has a moon called Titan that has a subsurface ocean and there are other moons out there like those. One of the new directions is to go and explore those movements of subsurface oceans.

How did your experience at the U of R prepare you for your career with JPL? 

My degree was a bachelor of science so I had a lot of computer science classes but I also had the standard breadth requirements. I took some physics and a reasonable amount of mathematics and I took some chemistry classes. As it turns out all of that was quite valuable in the career path I pursued. Then there was the non-academic experiences I had in some of the clubs and activities that I participated in. Those helped me with things like organizational skills, leadership skills, presentation skills – all of that mattered. 

Does your March 24 virtual lecture feel in some ways like coming home? 

It's a little bit like coming home. It’s unfortunate I can't do it in person but in this case it's only virtual. A big part of what we do for NASA is to share these experiences with the general public. The lecture gives me the opportunity to share the Perseverance mission with an audience and hopefully inspiring the next generation of scientists.

What do you miss about Regina? 

There are a few things I miss about Regina and the rest of Saskatchewan. One of them is the various ethnic cuisines that are not readily available in southern California. I like the outdoors and I've always liked the wide open spaces and the big clouds in Saskatchewan.