ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Larry Crumpler was a little more relaxed on Friday.
He’d been a tad tense the previous afternoon, waiting to see if the Mars rover Perseverance had set down on the planet in one piece.
“No matter how many times you go through that, there are so many showstoppers and you’re just waiting for one to pop up,” he said Friday.
Crumpler is part of the science team selected by NASA to operate Perseverance and perform scientific investigations. He had previously been part of the science team that for 15 years guided and analyzed the data from Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
He was online with other members of the science team, as well as monitoring various news sources, during the so-called seven minutes of terror — when Perseverance plunged through the Martian atmosphere at roughly 12,000 mph, or six times the speed of a bullet from a high-powered rifle. Perseverance then had to slow to about 17 mph so a crane could lower it the final 70 feet to the surface.
It took another 11 minutes before a signal from the rover reached Earth indicating it was a happy camper.
“I let out a big sigh of relief,” he said. “We’ve landed a number of vehicles on Mars, starting in the mid-1970s, and it just seemed like we were in a position for a big fall.”
Perseverance is heavier than the other rovers sent to Mars and contains more high-tech equipment, some of it for the landing “in a much more rugged and difficult place,” Crumpler said.
“The odds were against us. So it was kind of nail-biting and I was like, ‘Wow!’ We rolled the dice again and still came up successful.”
Crumpler, a volcanologist, planetary geologist and terrestrial field geologist with the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, immediately got into a chat debate with other members of the team after the first picture of the Martian terrain was transmitted.
“We didn’t really know what the nature of the rocks was at the particular place we set down, but we noticed that they had what looked like gas bubbles, like the gas bubbles you see in the basalt lava flows over in the petroglyphs. … There are a number of ideas about what little holes in rocks can mean.”
Crumpler’s job is to act like a field geologist on Earth, but using the rover as his eyes and hands. He will log the different types of rocks, their relative ages and all the things that can be seen on the terrain, and create a map.
The overall Perseverance mission was designed to last for one Martian year, or about two Earth years, during which time the rover will travel about 20 miles, Crumpler said. Because Perseverance is nuclear powered, Crumpler said he expects it will last many more years and travel much farther.
And, he said, when all the experiments are performed and analyzed, he wouldn’t be surprised if the geology of the general area “probably looks like something in western New Mexico.”