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Local researcher proposes Mars landing site

UNM graduate Larry Crumpler helped choose sites in '76, '97

Larry Crumpler, research curator at the Museum of Natural History, has proposed a landing site for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers mission, which aims to learn more about water on the planet by studying its rocks.

Crumpler, who graduated from UNM with a master's in geology in 1977, helped to choose landing sites for the Viking mission in 1976 and the Pathfinder mission in 1997. With a research grant from NASA, he is now pushing to have one of the two rovers land in a basin-floodplain area of Mars called Isidis. He said the area has fluvial fans and large sediments that may help researchers to study compounds that reveal more about the history of water on the planet.

A group of researchers is considering six possible locations for the sites - narrowed down from about 50. A steering committee will decide on two locations in April for each of the rovers.

Crumpler, who has worked alone on his research, said he is surprised that his location is one of the top six choices.

"For it to get to this point is kind of wild," he said.

The 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers will launch in May and July 2003 and are estimated to arrive on their targets in January and February 2004, he said.

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They will be about four times the size of the Pathfinder rover -about the size of an office desk, he said. They also are expected to travel 600 meters each, which is about 30 times the distance covered by the Pathfinder.

Crumpler said that researchers believe water flowed on Mars a few billion years ago.

He hovered over a laptop computer in his office Monday afternoon looking at geographical images taken by a Mars orbiter camera. He explained that all of the researchers who are vying for various landing sites have been studying the black and white images from the surface of the planet to better predict how the rovers will perform in those areas.

"We've got a handful of sites, and we're sort of raking them back and forth - poking and prodding," he said.

Finding the right landing sites isn't easy, Crumpler said. The areas must have enough sunlight for the rovers' solar energy panels and must be conducive to the engineering, landing and wandering of the machines.

The top sites at the moment are the Hematite site, a highland area rich in rust, which hints at the presence of water, and Melas Chasma, a canyon site, he said.

The rovers will fall to the surface of Mars at their selected sites in a heat shield and protective capsule that opens like a flower once it hits the surface of the planet, Crumpler said.

They will be equipped with panoramic cameras as well as with arms that can clear the surfaces from rocks to get a better look at what they are made of, he said.

Crumpler also analyzed data and mapped volcanoes on Venus for the Magellan Project. He said he enjoys studying volcanoes in New Mexico because it helps him to understand the volcanoes on other planets.

"It's just very other-worldly," he said of the state's geography.

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