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Highlighted Team Member: Ron Vervack
The Mastermind behind MESSENGER's Comet Observations

Ron Vervack at the controls of the NIRSPEC instrument (a high-resolution, near-infrared spectrometer) on the Keck 2 telescope in Hawaii during observations of comet C/2012 S1 (ISON).

Last fall, much of the attention of the star-gazing world was on two comets making their way across the sky toward the Sun: 2P/Encke, poised to make its 69th perihelion since its discovery in 1786; and the highly publicized C/2012 S1 (ISON). Both comets would eventually cross MESSENGER’s path in late November, and Ron Vervack organized an observation campaign to galvanize the probe’s instrument teams to take advantage of the dual opportunity.

Vervack, a senior research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), says that he has had his eye on the skies for as long as he can remember.  Some of his earliest memories are of the Apollo flights to the Moon.  “I had a Polaroid camera, and I took a picture of the TV when Apollo 17 launched,” he says. “Of course, it didn’t come out to be more than the flash bulb reflecting off the TV screen, but I knew what it was. I still have it somewhere.” 

A few years later, the Viking spacecraft arrived at Mars, and Voyagers 1 and 2 were shortly thereafter making headlines at Jupiter and Saturn.  When Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter in 1979, Ron asked his parents for a telescope.  He was given a basic 4-inch Newtonian, which he still has in his home office. “I don’t see how anyone could think about these accomplishments and not get excited.”

Ron’s interest was fueled by the popular movies of his childhood – he saw Star Wars more than 30 times (it helped that his family was friends with the theater owner) – as well as by a charismatic high school physics teacher who captivated the class with stories of his days working as a NASA engineer during the Gemini program. Vervack went on to obtain bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford University.

As an undergraduate, Ron landed a position with the Voyager mission, processing radio science data from Uranus. “I used to have this long print-out running around my dorm room like a wallpaper banner,” he remembers. “It was a line plot of the signal from Voyager as the spacecraft was occulted by the rings of Uranus. It was a great conversation piece as no one had a clue what it was.”

After that, he was hooked. He did a summer internship working on the camera system for Galileo, and then went on to earn a Ph.D. in planetary science from the University of Arizona. “I moved from radio wavelengths to the ultraviolet, did my dissertation on Titan’s atmosphere working with the Voyager Ultraviolet Spectrometer team, and ended up at APL.”

Ron’s first job at APL took him no farther into the solar system than our own planet.  “The work involved remote sensing of the Earth’s atmosphere,” he explains. “It was interesting, but it just didn’t capture my imagination like solar system research did.” He began keeping an eye out for a position that placed him back among the planets. “I had a lot of spacecraft and remote sensing experience, so when the opportunity to apply for the MESSENGER Participating Scientist program came along, I pounced,” he says. “I hadn’t worked on Mercury before, but I was, as they say, ‘pleased as Punch’ to be selected.”

He has two critical roles on the MESSENGER mission. As a Participating Scientist, his focus is on Mercury’s exosphere, or highly tenuous atmosphere. “Besides figuring out what makes the exosphere tick by analyzing the observations, I am also responsible for the day-to-day scheduling of the observations we make of the exosphere,” he says. “The Ultraviolet and Visible Spectrometer, or UVVS, is the exospheric workhorse instrument on MESSENGER.  Because it is a scanning grating spectrometer, it measures only one wavelength at a time, so to optimize the observations, I spend a lot of time each week puzzling out what would be best to do, which isn’t always that easy.  If you ever saw me editing one of the weekly schedules, you’d think I was looking at the Matrix.”

Ron is also the chair of MESSENGER’s Atmosphere and Magnetosphere Discipline Group, coordinating the work of the scientists studying Mercury’s exosphere and magnetosphere. “The original observing plan we put together prior to orbit insertion for the planet’s exosphere expanded tremendously by the time we were in orbit, going from maybe 15 to 20 minutes a day to 22 to 23 hours per day,” he says. “That expanded schedule has made for a lot more work each week, but the science return is also much greater.”

Vervack points to MESSENGER’s first flyby of Mercury in January 2008, its insertion into orbit about Mercury in March 2011, and completion of the comet observations as his most memorable moments as part of the team. “Getting the first glimpse of Mercury since the 1970s and then successfully going into orbit were big deals,” he says. “Up to then, I had made a career of analyzing data from the archives, for the most part.  With MESSENGER, I was part of an active mission, seeing things for the first time.  And right away, we made the discovery that the calcium distribution in the exosphere is highly asymmetric.  That result was completely unexpected and still defies explanation.” As for the comet observations, Vervack says, “They were a fantastic bonus and demonstrate what a great team can do when given the chance.”

Ron spends most of his free time with his family and raising his two kids (“That’s a full-time job on its own,” he says). But when he gets a few minutes to himself, he enjoys video games. “The arcade frenzy was in full swing when I was in junior high and high school, and personal computers — and the games that came with them — were making their debut,” he says. “That gaming ‘addiction’ for me has persisted through today. It is really quite impressive what designers can do with a game console.”

In fact, were he not a research scientist, he might be developing video games or working on movie special effects. “To a lot of people, programming is a chore,” he says. “I actually enjoy making the computer do things, and if I can make it do space science, all the better.”  As for the movie career, Vervack laments, “Stick figures are about as far as my artistic talent goes, unfortunately, so it would have been an uphill battle.”

And lest we think his comet days on MESSENGER are over, Vervack is on the lookout for another favorable opportunity for the spacecraft to take advantage of its proximity to the Sun to observe an approaching comet. He adds, “A cometary hat trick for MESSENGER would be a cool one for the record books.”

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