NASA’s Search for Life on Mars Underway with Help from Great Salt Lake on Earth
February 18, 2021
SALT LAKE CITY – Before the seven minutes of terror as the Mars Perseverance Rover successfully performed NASA’s most difficult landing on Mars ever, the search for signs of life on the red plant began right here on Earth at Great Salt Lake in Utah.
The rover’s main job is to seek signs of ancient life and collect samples for possible return to Earth. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) developed special equipment on the rover with help from the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College. Bonnie Baxter, PhD., biology professor and director of Westminster’s Great Salt Lake Institute, collaborated with JPL to study what salt can preserve over time – using the lake as a stand-in for Mars.
Baxter’s research shows salt crystals at the lake trap tiny forms of life – biological footprints. JPL used samples collected by Westminster students at Great Salt Lake to mimic what Perseverance will encounter on the red planet. Westminster students Siera Watson and Anna Jackson received a NASA grant to study microorganisms at the lake – extracting tiny forms of life out of gypsum salt and halite.
“My students and I have been growing microbes from our lake salt crystals. We may not find living cells on a dead planet like Mars, so JPL scientists are studying the ability of salt to retain molecules like DNA or lipids inside the salt crystals to see if we can image that from the outside,” explains Baxter.
Westminster’s Great Salt Lake Institute hosted a virtual watch party as Mars Perseverance landed on Mars and began its search for life using the same techniques from Great Salt Lake. Elementary school classrooms, college students, and science fans joined the panel of experts that included: Dr. Scott Perl from JPL and Dr. John Armstrong from the Ott Planetarium at Weber State University.
“While there is a lot of focus on the rover itself, the drill and its tires, the landing was such a raw human experience. It was wonderful to bring school kids and college students together with incredible scientists and share the awe of this historic moment,” said Jaimi Butler, Great Salt Lake Institute coordinator.
What Can the Great Salt Lake Tell Us About Life on Mars? | Mission Unstoppable
Dr. Baxter explains what Great Salt Lake tells us about Mars to CBS Mission Unstoppable.
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Westminster is a private, independent, and comprehensive college in Salt Lake City, Utah. Students experience the liberal arts blended with professional programs in an atmosphere dedicated to civic engagement. With the goal of enabling its graduates to live vibrant, just, and successful lives, Westminster provides transformational learning experiences for both undergraduate and graduate students in a truly student-centered environment. Faculty focus on teaching, learning, and developing distinctive, innovative programs, while students thrive on Westminster’s urban Sugar House campus within minutes of the Rocky Mountains.