The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

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October 26, 2012

Rockford native works on Mars rover

ROCKFORD, Ill. — When he was 12 years old, Dan Scharf was watching TV in his Rockford home and saw images that Voyager 2 had captured looking back into the solar system from past Uranus.

His reaction was somewhat akin to John Belushi's character in "The Blues Brothers," when Jake Elwood had a light-guided epiphany about getting the band back together.

Scharf said he had a "momentous feeling" as the spacecraft flew by Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus. "My whole body and soul were saying, 'This is the path to follow.' "

In August, Scharf, 39, senior engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said he experienced a "total dream come true" when the Mini Cooper-sized Curiosity rover landed on Mars. The project signifies a new era of exploration aimed at discovering if Mars has the building blocks needed for life.

The 1991 graduate of Rockford's Boylan Catholic High School was in charge of the guidance, navigation and control — that is the "spacecraft reflexes" — for the backup landing system. That backup system would have taken over steering for the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft to hit its landing target, if there had been any problems with the primary landing system.

On one side of the 15-mile-around landing target 150 million miles from Earth was a two-mile-high crater wall. On the other was a three-mile-tall mountain in the middle of the crater. "We hit the sweet spot," Scharf said.

The seven-minute landing went so well, the backup system that took Scharf and the rest of the backup team a year to develop wasn't needed. Then, after landing, the backup system deleted itself to make room for the rover driving instructions, he said. "I liken it to parenting a teenager," Scharf said. "Your job is to be there, if needed, but hopefully, you're not needed."

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