(ORDO NEWS) — NASA’s Perseverance rover captured spectacular footage of Phobos, Mars’ potato moon, crossing the surface of the Sun. These observations will help scientists better understand the moon’s orbit and how its gravity affects the Martian surface, ultimately shaping the Red Planet’s crust and mantle.
Captured by Perseverance’s new-generation Mastcam-Z camera on April 2, the 397th Martian day or sol of the mission, the eclipse lasted just over 40 seconds – much shorter than a typical solar eclipse involving Earth’s moon. (Phobos is about 157 times smaller than Earth’s moon. Mars’ other moon, Deimos, is even smaller.)
This image is the latest in a long history of NASA spacecraft capturing solar eclipses on Mars. Back in 2004, NASA’s twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity took the first photos of Phobos during a solar eclipse. Curiosity continued this trend with videos captured by its Mastcam camera system.
But Perseverance, which landed in February 2021, provided the largest ever video of a Phobos solar eclipse – and the highest frame rate ever. This is made possible by the next generation Mastcam-Z camera system, which is an improvement over the Mastcam Curiosity.
“I knew it was going to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be this amazing,” said Rachel Howson of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, one of the Mastcam-Z team that runs the camera.
Howson noted that while Perseverance sends low-resolution thumbnails first, they give an idea of future shots. She was stunned by the full resolution versions: “When the shots arrive, it’s like a birthday or a holiday. You know what’s coming, but there’s still an element of surprise when you see the final product.”
Color also distinguishes this version of Phobos’ solar eclipse. The Mastcam-Z is equipped with a solar filter that acts like sunglasses to reduce light intensity.
“You can see details in the shadow of Phobos, like the ridges and bumps on the moon’s landscape,” says Mark Lemmon, a planetary astronomer at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, who has orchestrated most of the rovers’ observations of Phobos. “You can also see sunspots. It’s great that you can see this eclipse just like the rover saw it from Mars.”
As Phobos orbits Mars, its gravity exerts a slight tidal force on the interior of the Red Planet, slightly deforming the rock in the planet’s crust and mantle. These forces are also slowly changing the orbit of Phobos.
As a result, geophysicists can use these changes to better understand how malleable the interior of Mars is and learn more about the materials of the crust and mantle.
Scientists already know that Phobos is doomed: the moon is getting closer to the Martian surface and in tens of millions of years should crash into the planet. But observations of eclipses from the surface of Mars in the past two decades have also allowed scientists to refine their understanding of Phobos’ slow death spiral.
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