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The Martian chronicles: NM scientist, Larry Crumper, selected to work on Mars rover mission

An artist’s concept depicts NASA’s 2020 rover exploring Mars. (Nasa/Jpl-Caltech)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Larry Crumpler is in the throes of finishing an upcoming book.

This entails long days writing. And plenty more writing and editing.

bright spotAlas, the months-long project is in the last week before deadline.

“I’m writing this Mars book now and summarizing 50 years of Mars exploration,” he says. “I’m like the Forrest Gump of Mars information. I’m diving deep back to the 1970s. Back in those days, we didn’t know anything about Mars. It’s been quite a transition over the years.”

Dr. Larry Crumpler

While Crumpler has been knee-deep in Mars exploration history, he’s also part of the future.

On Monday, Crumpler was named as one of the 13 scientists selected by NASA to the science team of the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover mission.

During the new mission scientists will perform scientific investigations as part of the team operating the Perseverance rover when it lands on Feb. 18, 2021.

The mission began as the rover lifted off on July 30 in Florida.

The mission will not only seek out and study an area likely to have been habitable in the distant past, but it will take the next, bold step in robotic exploration of the Red Planet by seeking signs of past microbial life itself.

In this illustration, NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover uses the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL). (Nasa/Jpl-Caltech)

Mars 2020 will use powerful instruments to investigate rocks on Mars down to the microscopic scale of variations in texture and composition.

It will also acquire and store samples of the most promising rocks and soils that it encounters, and set them aside on the surface of Mars.

“A future mission could potentially return these samples to Earth,” Crumpler says.

Crumpler, a volcanology and space sciences researcher at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, was selected after a national and international search for science participants for the upcoming mission to the Red Planet.

“I couldn’t believe it because I waited all summer to hear back,” he says. “It was quite a shock.”

According to the State Department of Cultural Affairs, the scientists selected are from universities and institutes around the world.

The NMMNHS is one of only two museums represented in this mission along with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the Mars 2020 mission with the Perseverance rover lifted off from Space Launch Complex-41 on July 30. (Courtesy of United Launch Alliance)

This means that NMMNHS will play a pivotal role in its second major NASA Mars rover mission and will be able to offer New Mexicans real-time information about the discoveries of Perseverance.

Being part of a rover science team isn’t new for Crumpler.

He previously spent 15 years as a scientist on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, where the NMMNHS was one of only two museums nationwide to be a part of the mission.

“This mission will be a lot different,” he says. “That’s what I’m looking forward to is being part of this big mission.”

In his new role on the Perseverance team, he will be documenting the geology along the rover’s path, much like a geologist does in the field.

He will be making use of most of the instruments on the Perseverance rover to facilitate the investigation, including the SuperCam built by a team at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“The Spirit and Opportunity rovers confirmed the presence of water in the past on Mars, and the fact that the planet has complex geology that is similar in many ways to New Mexico,” Crumpler explains. “Now we are going to Mars to look for evidence of past life. So the Space Sciences department at the museum will now encompass some aspects of the museum’s other specialty – fossils. We will be looking for microfossils or other evidence of past microbial life – in this case, on Mars instead of in New Mexico.”

Crumpler says one of his tasks on the mission will include evaluating the use of the new helicopter “Ingenuity” for geologic research along the rover’s traverse in its landing site, the Jezero Crater.

Crumpler’s been a science team member on the development of the proposed Mars helicopter “Scout” in 2014, which was adopted as a technology experiment on the Perseverance mission.

Perseverance will land at the site of an ancient Martian river delta. The mission goals include a search for evidence for past microbial life preserved in the sediments.

“Everyone wants to be on a rover mission these days because they know how much fun they are,” he says. “When I submitted to be part of the team, I knew it was a long shot because there are so many proposals. The landing takes place on Feb. 18, 2021, and it starts for real. Perseverance is predicted to go for years and years while traversing the surface of Mars.”

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