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Robert Wharton

How a piece of Mars came to bear name of Hokie scientist

A ridge along the planet Mars’ Marathon Valley has been named after Virginia Tech College of Science doctoral alumnus Robert A. Wharton Jr., who spent his career as an astrobiologist, an explorer and scientist working in Antarctica, and an educator.

The ridge was named by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity team in honor of Wharton for his pioneering work in the use of terrestrial analog environments, particularly in Antarctica, where he studied scientific problems that could be equated to research on the likelihood of living on Mars.

Wharton earned his doctoral degree in botany from the Department of Biological Sciences in 1982. During his long career, he served as a visiting senior scientist at NASA headquarters, was vice president for research at the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, served as provost at Idaho State University, and was president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

He died from complications related to cancer at age 60 in 2012.

“Bob was way ahead of his time,” said Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the Mars Opportunity rover and the James A. Weeks Professor of Physical Sciences at Cornell University. “In recent years, field work in analog environments has become central to astrobiology. But that wasn’t the case 30 years ago. Bob was a pioneer in this area, working in a number of regions on Earth that provided good analogs to Mars.”

Ridge on Mars

Ridge on Mars
The full extent of Wharton Ridge is visible in the foreground of this composite photograph.

Squyres and Wharton worked together in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, where both men and other scientists carried out astrobiology research projects during the 1980s. The idea: Survival and research carried out in the harsh environs of Antarctica could be equated to doing the same on the Red Planet.

Wharton earned a doctoral degree in botany from the Department of Biological Sciences, part of the College of Science, in 1982. During his career, he would go on to receive the United States Antarctic Service Medal from Congress and served on the National Research Council’s Polar Research Board.

Wharton Ridge sits in good company. According to a release from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, the ridge forms part of the southern wall of Marathon Valley on the western rim of the Endeavour Crater. Near the right edge of Wharton is the Lewis and Clark Gap, named after famed early American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and another nearby ridge is named for the late Noel Hinners, a geologist and soil chemist.

The Opportunity rover, operated by NASA's JPL, explored this region of Mars in August and September 2016.

The ridge is 330 feet long, about the equivalent of a 30 story building, and 65 feet wide. The ridge was first mentioned by the Opportunity team during a mission update in the week of Aug. 24 -30, 2016, according to NASA website logs. NASA made the name official in an early October release, showing the ridge marked in relation to Lewis and Clark Gap and other nearby landmarks.

The ridge was first explored in summer 2015, imaged by the Opportunity rover.

Mars ridge overhead

Mars ridge overhead
In this overhead NASA-supplied view of Mars’ Wharton Ridge and its surroundings within Marathon Valley, the route of the Opportunity rover can be seen in gold lines.

Squyres said after the Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed on Mars in January 2004, he received a congratulatory e-mail from Wharton. Years after the landing, Squyres said he had the visited Wharton in South Dakota to talk about the mission and show him images in detail.

“[Bob] was very excited by all of it, and we were both struck by how much it looked like places where we’d done field work long ago," he said.

Among faculty who worked with Wharton in Antarctica while the former was a graduate student at Virginia Tech was George Simmons, an Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus of biological science.

Joined by other faculty and students, the men studied microorganisms living in ice-covered freshwater lakes in Antarctica’s Dry Valleys, again with an eye toward possible life on other planets.

“Bob was always a colleague and collaborator on the possibility of extraterrestrial life, which shows the high esteem other scientists had for Bob and his original and creative ideas,” Simmons said.

“Dr. Wharton and his work are still remembered fondly here at South Dakota Mines,” said Heather Wilson, who succeeded Wharton as president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. “Having a ridge named for him on Mars is appropriate and would likely make him smile.”