Geology & Geophysics Tribute

Alberto Behar (1967–2015)

Devoted to exploration and discovery, this JPL scientist's inquisitive mind, inventiveness, and infectious enthusiasm inspired students, colleagues, and friends alike.


Scientist-engineer and adventurer Alberto Behar died on 9 January 2015 at the age of 47 when the plane he was flying crashed near his longtime workplace, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

Alberto concurrently worked as a research professor at Arizona State University’s (ASU) School of Earth and Space Exploration beginning in 2009, where he operated the Extreme Environments Robotics and Instrumentation Laboratory. He was a researcher and educator who actively sought to bridge the gap between science and engineering. His career was dedicated to better understanding Earth and beyond by developing instruments that enabled exploration of regions too dangerous or inaccessible for human explorers.

Alberto was born and raised in Miami, Fla., after his parents emigrated from Cuba to the United States. He attended the University of Florida, majoring in computer and information engineering sciences. He went on to earn two graduate degrees, a Master of Engineering in electrical, computer, and systems engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a Master of Science in computer science, with a specialization in robotics, from the University of Southern California. In 1998, he obtained his doctorate in electrical engineering, with an astronautics minor, from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Specialized in Robotics

During his 23-year career at JPL, Alberto specialized in robotics for exploring extreme environments on Earth and other planets. He once said that technological innovations are a way of overcoming the limits on our ability to explore: “Technology is how we get our senses to a remote location where we can’t actually go ourselves.”

He participated in the exploration of Mars, serving as the investigation scientist for the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons instrument on the Curiosity rover. For the Mars Exploration rovers, he was a rover driver and a member of the system downlink analysis team. He was the investigation scientist on three of the Mars Odyssey orbiter instruments: the high-energy neutron detector, the gamma ray spectrometer, and the thermal imaging spectrometer.

In terrestrial research, his brilliant engineering creations reached deep into the oceans’ hydrothermal vents, next to volcanoes, under thick ice sheets, and into the stratosphere. A promising new project with Diana Roman at Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and Lindy Elkins-Tanton at ASU was building rapid-deploy, relatively inexpensive volcano sensors for sulfur, carbon, fluorine, and chlorine emissions accompanied by a simultaneously operating seismometer and weather station.

Instruments and Vehicles for Both Polar Regions

Alberto may be best remembered for the many instruments and vehicles he built that have expanded our understanding of both polar regions. His National Science Foundation-supported research included developing new devices that allowed researchers to safely and cleanly explore subglacial lakes and underwater vehicles that measure ocean and ice interactions in the Amundsen Sea, as well as the deployment of global positioning system sensors to measure ice mass loss in Antarctica.

“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,” said Thomas Wagner, the cryosphere program scientist at NASA headquarters. “His creativity knew few bounds.”

Alberto Behar. Credit: Konrad Steffen
Alberto Behar. Credit: Konrad Steffen

A Greenland research paper, which Alberto coauthored, was released days after his death by Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The lead author, Laurence Smith of UCLA, arranged to rewrite the acknowledgments section to begin with, “This research is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Alberto Behar, who tragically passed away January 9, 2015.”

Alberto was a member of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, AGU, IEEE Autonomous Robotics, and the Association of Computing Machinery.

“Alberto Behar was a uniquely talented engineer, developing ways to measure changes in our natural world in the most challenging environments—the ocean depths or the Antarctic ice cap,” said Elkins-Tanton, director of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “With those around him, he shared both a brilliant mind and a big heart. His students were full partners in a grand adventure. His colleagues quickly came to know his caring nature and irrepressible good humor.”

An Inquisitive Mind

His inquisitive mind, inventiveness, and infectious enthusiasm inspired students, colleagues, and friends alike. He was passionate, driven, and widely known for his technical excellence. He brought optimism and an accompanying smile to every room he entered. To him, engineering was an enabling strategy for scientific research.

Alberto was devoted to exploration and discovery, and he was highly successful in his career, but he never lost sight of his true love: his family.

When he wasn’t talking about work, he was talking about his wife and children. He absolutely adored them and took them along on many of his adventures. He is survived by his wife, Mary, and three children: his son, Indra, and his daughters, Isis and Athena.

—Nicole Cassis, School of Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University; email: [email protected]

Citation: Cassis, N. (2015), Alberto Behar (1967–2015), Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO032047. Published on 29 June 2015.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0