In the early hours of Friday, NASA's Mars rover, Perseverence made a landing on the red planet.
Perseverance, the most advanced astro biology laboratory ever sent to another world, streaked through the Martian atmosphere to land on the floor of a vast crater, its first stop on a search for traces of ancient microbial life on the Red Planet.
The robotic vehicle sailed through space for nearly seven months, covering 293 million miles (472 million km) before piercing the Martian atmosphere at 12,000 miles per hour (19,000 km per hour) to begin its descent to the planet’s surface.
Moments after touchdown, Perseverance beamed back its first black-and-white images from the Martian surface, one of them showing the rover’s shadow cast on the desolate, rocky landing site.
"Hello, world. My first look at my forever home," it wrote. The second photo showed a look behind it - on the Jezero Crater.
Even as the entire world waited with bated breath for the landing, a special section of Earthlings were more excited about Perseverence's destination: The Jerezo crater.
Schoolchildren in the Bosnian village of Jezero waited with great excitement for an attempt by NASA on to land on an ancient lake bed on Mars which is named after their tiny hometown.
Before the landing, students were due to watch the historic landing live on video beam in their school courtyard, and held a friendly volleyball match between sides called “Planet Earth” and “Planet Mars”.
“This time we’ll cheer for the Planet Mars,” joked Snezana Ruzicic, the mayor of the Jezero municipality in western Bosnia.
Jezero, which means lake in most Slavic languages, had been chosen as a name by NASA because it shares similar geological characteristics to the vast, rocky crater at the edge of a remnant river delta, which was carved into the red planet billions of years ago.
When the town, home to just over 1,000 people, learned about this in 2018, everyone found it “very, very positive and also odd news”, said Ruzicic, who had then checked the information through the U.S. Embassy in Bosnia and established links with NASA.
Seven months ago, Jezero’s schoolchildren watched the launch of the Mars rover from Earth.
“They were thrilled and joyful and drew their visions of the Mars in the streets,” Ruzicic told Reuters in a telephone interview.
She hopes that excitement about the Mars exploration will put her tiny town on the map.
“Through the Mars rover’s both launching and landing we’ve got a free promotion of our town,” Ruzicic said. “Now we need investment for Jezero to stay on and survive.”
Why this specific landing spot? NASA on its own website explains why it chose Jezero Crater as the landing site for the Perseverance rover. Scientists believe the area was once flooded with water and was home to an ancient river delta. The process of landing site selection involved a combination of mission team members and scientists from around the world, who carefully examined more than 60 candidate locations on the Red Planet. After the exhaustive five-year study of potential sites, each with its own unique characteristics and appeal, Jezero rose to the top.
Jezero Crater tells a story of the on-again, off-again nature of the wet past of Mars. More than 3.5 billion years ago, river channels spilled over the crater wall and created a lake. Scientists see evidence that water carried clay minerals from the surrounding area into the crater lake. Conceivably, microbial life could have lived in Jezero during one or more of these wet times. If so, signs of their remains might be found in lakebed or shoreline sediments. Scientists will study how the region formed and evolved, seek signs of past life, and collect samples of Mars rock and soil that might preserve these signs.
Jezero Crater is 28 miles (45 kilometers) wide, and is located on the western edge of a flat plain called Isidis Planitia, which lies just north of the Martian equator. The landing site is about 2,300 miles (3,700 kilometers) from Curiosity’s landing site in Gale Crater.
Jezero Crater sits within the Isidis Planitia region of Mars, where an ancient meteorite impact left behind a large crater some 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) across. This event is known as Isidis impact, and it forever changed the rock at the base of the crater. A later, smaller meteorite impact created the Jezero Crater within the Isidis impact basin. Scientists believe that these events likely created environments friendly to life. There is evidence of ancient river flow into Jezero, forming a delta that has long since been dry.
Jezero Crater is thus likely to have been habitable in the distant past. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's CRISM instrument has revealed that the crater contains clays, which only form in the presence of water. On Earth, scientists have found such clays in the Mississippi river delta, where microbial life has been found embedded in the rock itself. This makes Jezero Crater a great place to fulfill the Mars 2020 mission's science goal of studying a potentially habitable environment that may still preserve signs of past life.
At Jezero Crater, Perseverance should be able to access rocks that are as old as 3.6 billion years.
(With inputs from Reuters.)