Skip to main content

Geology Underfoot and under Rover

As an undergraduate geology student, Hannah Bonner co-authored a book with paleogeographic reconstructions of Utah's landscape over hundreds of millions of years. She's also a member of the BYU Mars rover project.

Hannah Bonner’s research is both down to earth and out of this world—literally.

Bonner, an undergraduate student, co-authored Landscapes of Utah’s Geologic Past (published May 2016) with her mentor, Dr. Tom Morris.

Morris was searching for someone who had Photoshop and design experience to help with the project, and Bonner had worked as a graphic designer before.

“I was there when he was talking to his graduates students about it, and I was like, ‘Wait, I can do that!’” Bonner said. “I worked on it over the weekend and showed him, and he hired me that next day.”

Aided by her background in graphic design, Bonner helped him reconstruct the paleogeography of Utah with nine maps showing the topography of Utah over the last 310 million years.

“These maps are so important because they simply and powerfully communicate complex geologic information in a format understandable and appreciable to even a non-scientific audience,” Bonner said. “Not only does our work educate but it also builds disciplinary communication tools.”

She presented a poster on her paleogeographic reconstructions at the 2016 Geological Society of America Conference in Denver, Colorado. This opportunity gave her the chance to share her research and maps of Utah’s ancient landscapes with geologists from across the United States. She said the experience was “humbling and enabling.”

Bonner was also selected as one of only four undergraduates in the United States for an internship in China studying landslides. The project, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the University of Houston, is focused on assessing landslides near the Yangtze River and Three Gorges Dam.

“There’s a lot of destabilization of soil in the Three Gorges area.  Our work focuses on the nearby Huangtupo landslide site.  Our research will use GPS and LiDAR technologies to map the landslide and then study correlation between landslide movement and the Three Gorges Reservoir water levels,” Bonner said. “Ultimately, we hope to develop an early warning system to be used to protect local communities.”

But while Bonner diligently studies the earth beneath her, her focus is also skyward, with sights specifically set on the red planet.

Bonner is the science team lead for BYU’s Mars rover project. She oversees the rover’s science cache activity. The team is designing a rover that can collect and store samples for later retrieval.

“Our research focuses on designing a rover able to navigate the surface of Mars, take detailed pictures, collect soil samples, run a series of tests, and thoroughly assess its environment for evidence of past or current life,” Bonner said.

The team is building a physical prototype of the rover, and the team will take the rover to the University Rover Challenge in Hanksville, Utah, in June 2017. Universities from seven different countries will bring their rovers to the competition. The rovers will be ranked for their ability to perform a series of tests.

Hanksville is the competition’s 2017 location because of its Martian-like terrain and Mars Desert Research Station. The BYU team recently took their rover out there to test its performance.

Data from NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, which is currently on the red planet, has largely impacted the BYU team’s research. This data has helped determine the history of liquid water on the planet and the potential for microbial life.

“We know that Mars had all the elements required to evolve life,” Bonner said. “Early in the planet’s history, it had a stronger atmosphere, moderated surface temperatures, and liquid water.  Our rover’s mission is to determine if these conditions led to the evolution of microbial life.  We’re searching for definitive evidence that life was present.”

Bonner said BYU has done really well in this competition in the past.  Thanks to a strong team of engineers and valuable mentoring from Dr. Eric Christiansen and Dr. Jani Radenbaugh of the Geology Department, Bonner is hopeful that her team will place well this year too.