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NASA's newest Mars rover—set to land Thursday—has a strong Utah connection

Posted at 1:28 PM, Feb 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-15 21:09:38-05

SALT LAKE CITY — A professor at Westminster College is helping NASA in its quest to find life on Mars.

Prof. Bonnie Baxter explained how she’s using microorganisms from the Great Salt Lake to further NASA’s research on the Red Planet.

Her research shows that tiny forms of life are trapped in salt crystals at the Great Salt Lake.

On Thursday, if all goes well, NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover will plunge through Mars’ thin atmosphere at 12,000 mph, then make a safe landing on an ancient Martian lake bed that left salt crystals behind.

“Landing on Mars is difficult, and the rover is carrying special equipment designed to search for signs of ancient microbial life on the planet,” a news release from the college says.

Baxter, who is a biology professor and the director of the college’s Great Salt Lake Institute, collaborated with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to study what salt can preserve, using the Great Salt Lake as a stand-in for Mars.

“If there was life there in that spot as the water dried up that life had to deal with salt and so we can take a lot of lessons from the Great Salt Lake and think about ‘How does life do that?’ and ‘Could life potentially still be there in the ancient salt on Mars?’” Baxter said.

The rover is set to touch down on Mars at about 1:55 p.m. Thursday, and it will stay there for several years as it collects salt crystals to be sent back to Utah for further analysis.

Students and staff members are planning a watch party via Zoom, and anyone with an internet connection can watch the touchdown on NASA’s website and social media.