SALT LAKE CITY — If the new photos of Mars from the rover Curiosity remind you of southern Utah, you're not alone.
Many Earth-bound scientists have been struck by similarities between the red planet and Utah's red rock deserts.
"I specialize in sedimentary geology, and that's a lot of what they're finding on Mars," said Marjorie Chan, professor of geology at the University of Utah.
The geologic comparisons are helping scientists firm up a new understanding of Martian history and the possibility that life once existed on Earth's neighboring planet.
NASA missions to Mars in recent years have obtained steadily improving imagery, and Curiosity is providing the most detailed pictures yet. Collectively, the missions reveal vast red deserts with broken rocks resembling volcanic areas on Earth, and exposed layers that look like stratified sedimentary rocks in southern Utah.
"It's really exciting because we're able to see things now that we could never see before," Chan said. "Partly, that's why we're recognizing that Mars is more Earth-like than we had previously thought."
Underlining the comparison is a project that's been under way in southern Utah for more than a decade. The Mars Society has been operating a pseudo-Mars habitat in a barren desert area near Hanksville since 2002.
Volunteers have been living, on and off, in a small building that looks like a space colony surrounded by a harsh Martian landscape. The project is designed to test methods, equipment and human behavior in a manned mission to Mars.
The Utah project is currently on hiatus, but The Mars Society is seeking volunteers for the next round of simulations.
Chan has led teams of space scientists into southern Utah to examine landscapes that have similarities to places on Mars. Exposed layers of sedimentary rock are especially useful to scientists because they provide clues about the history of environmental change.
"We think that many of the same processes and some of the kinds of environments that we can see exposed in southern Utah are probably similar to some of the environments on Mars," Chan said.
On Earth, sedimentary rock is typically mud and sand that was originally deposited by wind and water. Chan said recent missions to Mars have already laid some questions to rest, such as: Was there ever water on Mars?
"I think that the question is now out the window," Chan said. "We know that there was water on Mars. And now we need to know the extent of it. And of course, the tantalizing question is: Is there life on Mars? Wherever there's water on Earth, we know that life exists."
Because of increased public interest in Mars, the Clark Planetarium scheduled Chan for a lecture on similarities between Utah and Mars at 7 p.m. Thursday. The lecture costs $2 and is scheduled for the exhibition area on the third floor of the planetarium, 110 S. 400 West.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company