Mars Up Close

Mars Up Close

Scott Murchie's team of scientists helps uncover the secrets of the red planet

By Tom Nugent

murchie team
Scott Murchie ’81, seated at right, celebrates with his team at the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) operations center at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in 2006. The team had just learned that the cover on CRISM had opened, allowing it to begin collecting images of Mars that are being used in investigations to determine whether elements necessary for life existed on the planet.
Raised in Leominster, west of Boston, Murchie is the son of a woodworker and an office secretary. Their own parents hadn’t been able to afford to send them to college, but Murchie’s mother and father were determined their son would get there. “They were adamant about that, and my mom was already bugging me about getting ready for college when I was in the first grade,” Murchie said with a chuckle. “But their interest in books and in learning really got me started down the educational path, and I’m still very grateful for that.”

In fact, Murchie says his interest in geology got its start during long walks with his father. “Our New England neighborhood was full of stone walls, and when I was four or five years old my dad pointed out to me that the walls contained many different kinds of rocks, and I think my natural curiosity just took over from there.”

Murchie’s growing interest in geology took a giant leap forward in the late 1970s at Colby. After arriving on campus for his freshman year in the fall of 1977, he found a “terrific mentor” in the legendary Dana Professor of Geology (Emeritus) Donaldson Koons, who chaired the department from 1947 to 1982. “Dr. Koons was a passionate teacher who really pushed you to the limit,” Murchie recalled. “He taught the most eye-opening course I took at Colby, which was called Glacial Geology, as I remember. And our major assignment that semester was to study the giant ice cap that had once covered all of northern North America.

“Our instructions were to drive way out in the really serious backwoods and look for the kinds of rock and sand deposits that had been left behind when the glaciers melted. We got turned loose on a three-hundred-square-mile area of northern Maine, and hiking through that rugged wilderness was a great introduction to the rigors of science.”

After collecting his geology B.A. in 1981, Murchie went on to earn a Ph.D. at Brown in 1988, focusing on the relatively narrow field of planetary geology, in which scientists study geological processes occurring on other planets in the solar system.

Through a mentor at Brown, Murchie then landed a post-doctoral fellowship with the Soviet Union-sponsored Mars landing mission, Phobos II. That vehicle successfully reached the planet but vanished in the late 1980s.

Murchie’s career, meanwhile, was on an upward trajectory.

Based on his growing knowledge of Martian geology, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab hired him in 1994 to work on a series of planetary missions. He studied the structure of planetary crusts, asteroids, and worked on exploratory missions like Mars Pathfinder and New Horizons. “My interests are broad,” Murchie said, “but have always focused on Mars.”

These culminated in his appointment as principal investigator on CRISM in 2001.
mars science lab
The Mars Science Laboratory, the car-sized rover scheduled for launch in 2009.
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