Out of this World Research: from Great Salt Lake to Mars

When the next Mars Rover lands on the red planet in 2020, it will search for signs of ancient life using research from Westminster’s Great Salt Lake Institute. The glistening crust of Great Salt Lake’s lake bed resembles those on Mars so closely that scientists are using it to address the question: is there life on Mars?

Bonnie Baxter, biology professor and director of Westminster’s Great Salt Lake Institute, is collaborating with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab to study what salt can preserve over time. The shores of Great Salt Lake are other worldly: seemingly barren yet teeming with life. Baxter’s research shows salt crystals at the lake trap tiny forms of life – biological footprints.

“Along the shores we pick up salt crystals, and what we’ve found in our lab is that microorganisms can get trapped inside these crystals,” Baxter said. “People that study salt biology have been reporting this for a number of years now. Even going back millions of years you can find microorganisms or their molecules preserved.”

If salt on Earth can trap biological molecules over time, could salt on Mars hold evidence that life was once in the planet’s salty lakes? The next Mars Exploration Rover Mission in 2020 will examine minerals on Mars, looking for the molecules of life stored inside. NASA needed an analogous system on Earth to test their methods.