As the Mars rover Curiosity begins its epic work on the Red Planet’s surface, a name keeps popping up that has a direct connection to Santa Barbara.
Mount Sharp, a prime research target for Curiosity, is named after the late geologist Robert Phillip Sharp, a pioneering authority on the surfaces of Earth and Mars, who spent his retirement years living in Santa Barbara.
Mount Sharp rises nearly 3.5 miles above the floor of the Gale Crater, where Curiosity made its improbable landing on Monday.
Scientists believe the peak is the surviving remnant of an extensive series of deposits that were laid down after a massive impact that excavated the crater some 3 billion years ago, according to NASA.
Sharp, who passed away in May 2004 at the age of 92 , was the longtime head of the geological sciences division at the California Institute of Technology. He is considered a founder of planetary science, and a mentor to many of the current leaders in the field, according to the NASA website.
Curiosity will use a variety of instruments to investigate whether the region around the crater has ever offered conditions favorable for life, according to NASA.
“Some lower layers of Mount Sharp might tell of a lake within Gale Crater long ago, or wind-delivered sediments subsequently soaked by groundwater,” according to NASA.
Doug Burbank, chair of the Department of Earth Sciences at UCSB, said he never knew Sharp, “although many of us exploit his work in California on landforms and geology in our teaching and research.”
UCSB geology Professor Frank J. Spera recalled meeting Sharp a few times during visits to Caltech, but said he didn’t know him well.
He noted that Sharp, who retired in 1979, was from an earlier generation of scientists, who predated many of today’s active researchers.
Among his honors, Sharp won the National Medal of Science, America’s highest scientific honor, in 1989. He was recognized for having “illuminated the nature and origin of the forms and formation processes of planetary surfaces, and for teaching two generations of scientists and laymen to appreciate them.”