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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.

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.