LOS ANGELES — The pilot of a small plane that crashed at a Los Angeles intersection was a NASA and Jet Propulsion Labs researcher who helped determine that there was once water on the surface of Mars, his colleagues said.
Alberto Behar, 47, of Scottsdale, Arizona, died instantly when his single-engine plane nosedived shortly after takeoff Friday from Van Nuys Airport, the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner said Saturday.
Behar worked for 23 years at JPL in Pasadena and also held a research professor post at Arizona State University. He worked on two Mars missions and spent years researching how robots work in harsh environments like volcanoes and underwater.
As part of the NASA team exploring Mars with the Curiosity rover, Behar was responsible for a device that detected hydrogen on the planet's surface as the rover moved.
"His career was dedicated to better understanding Earth and the other planets," JPL Science Division manager Michael Watkins in a statement.
In 2010, he designed a camera that captured a tiny shrimp-like creature swimming deep beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, a highly unexpected find.
Colleagues said he was valued for bridging the divide between scientists trying to study an inhospitable environment and engineers whose robots could survive there.
"From his submarines that peeked under Antarctica to his boats that raced Greenland's rivers, Alberto's work enabled measurements of things we'd never known," NASA scientist Thomas Wagner said in a statement. "His creativity knew few bounds. He is, and will forever be, sorely missed."
The cause of the crash remains under investigation.