NASA’s Perseverance rover captured the clearest images ever seen of a solar eclipse on Mars, and the results are out of this world.
The rover took ethereal video of Mars’ potato-shaped moon Phobos moving in front of the sun on April 2. During the eclipse, Phobos cast its ragged shadow on the Martian surface, looking almost like the pupil of a giant eyeball rolling in its orbit.
Perseverance recorded the images midway through its journey to a river delta in Mars’ 45-kilometer-wide Jezero Crater, where it will search for evidence of life on the Red Planet. Focusing its state-of-the-art Mastcam-Z camera on the sky, the rover recorded the solar transit of the misshapen moon at the largest zoom and highest frame rate ever seen.
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“I knew it was going to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be this amazing,” said Rachel Howson, mission operations specialist at Malin Space Science Systems and one of the Mastcam-Z team members who operate the camera. in a sentence.
Phobos, named for the Greek god of fear, is about 157 times smaller than Earth’s moon and is one of two natural satellites of Mars, along with the even smaller Deimos (named after the Greek god of fear). ).
Scientists believe that the sister moons were once roving asteroids that were trapped in Mars’ orbit by the planet’s gravitational field. The orbits of these captive asteroids are unstable, according to the researchers, and scientists predict that in a few tens of millions of years, Deimos will spin out into space while Phobos will crash into the surface of Mars.
Researchers have been making observations of the Phobos eclipse from the Martian surface since 2004, when NASA’s twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity took the first time-lapse photographs of the moon’s transit. NASA’s other active Mars rover, Curiosity, made similar observations in 2019. These earlier images were not very detailed and were recorded in black and white, but Perserverance’s improved Mastcam-Z allowed scientists to take the first images in eclipse colour. Mastcam-Z is also equipped with a solar filter, which reduces the intensity of incoming light and allows scientists to capture details never seen before.
“You can see details in the shape of Phobos’ shadow, like ridges and bulges on the moon’s landscape,” Mark Lemmon, a planetary astronomer at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in the statement. “You can also see sunspots. And it’s great that you can see this eclipse exactly as the rover saw it from Mars.” Sunspots have been invading the sun’s surface recently following an increase in solar activity, which has launched waves of plasma into Earth’s magnetic field.
NASA doesn’t just watch eclipses for pretty pictures. Making observations of Phobos’s path around Mars is vital to improving scientific understanding of the doomed moon’s death spiral. Studying eclipse images helps scientists observe the gravitational forces between Mars and Phobos, and can provide information about the planet’s interior and the tidal forces that shape its crust and mantle. The same forces also act on Phobos to subtly affect its orbit.
Perseverance is a key part of NASA’s $2.7 billion Mars 2020 mission, which, along with the Curiosity rover, is searching for signs of ancient life on the surface of Mars by collecting dozens of rock samples for future use. eventual return to Earth over the next decade. The rover is accompanied by the Ingenuity helicopter, which has so far made 25 flights over Mars.
Originally published on Live Science.