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Utah scientists and professors excited about Perseverance Rover landing

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Utah scientists and professors will keep a close watch over the progress of NASA’s Perseverance Rover now that it has landed on Mars.

Several professors from Westminster College hosted a landing watch party over Zoom for the event. After the words “touchdown confirmed” were broadcast over NASA’s YouTube channel, you could see smiles going ear-to-ear on the individuals who attended the Zoom call.

Some of the attendees have been researching ancient microbiology found in Utah. While others have been creating possible ways to make Mars suitable for life. 

Westminster College Biology Professor Dr. Bonnie Baxter has a special interest in this mission. “This is pretty exciting. This is the first mission since the Viking missions in the 1970s that had a goal of looking for life,” according to Baxter.

Mission organizers decided to land on the Jezero Crater, which Baxter believes is an ancient closed-basin lake system that has dried up.

In other words, “At some time in its history, it had water in it and looked a bit like the Great Salt Lake,” Baxter said.

NASA found small trickles of water near this site, and Baxter reported if water moves on Mars it has to be extremely salty, otherwise it would freeze. It’s the salt content on Mars that excites Baxter. 

“Microorganisms that live in salty places can survive being dried up inside a salt crystal and can last for millions of years,” she said. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab used samples collected by students at Westminster College to mimic what Perseverance could find on Mars.

To get samples back, NASA is teaming with the European Space Agency, ESA, to make a rover specific for this mission.

“The little, miniature rover will go and collect the samples that Perseverance is digging out of the ground,” Baxter relayed. Once the samples are collected, the fetch rover will load them into a rocket to fire back to Earth. 

Several news outlets are reporting the Perseverance Rover samples will eventually land in a west desert of Utah, likely at the Dugway Testing Grounds. However, Baxter reported that won’t happen for a few years.