Perseverance rover records solar eclipse on Mars

The zoomable camera on NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars recently captured a dramatic view of Phobos, the largest of the Red Planet’s two potato-shaped moons, crossing the face of the sun in a solar eclipse lasting a little more than 40 seconds.

The Mastcam-Z instrument on the Perseverance rover recorded the solar eclipse April 2, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Phobos measures 17 miles (27 kilometers) across on its longest axis, and orbits about 3,700 miles (6,000 kilometers) from the Martian surface, completing three laps around the planet per day.

Earth’s moon is 157 times larger than Phobos, and orbits more than 60 times farther from Earth than Phobos from Mars.

The Perseverance rover landed on Mars in February 2021, and among its sophisticated instrument package is the first zoom-capable camera to reach the Red Planet. The Mastcam-Z instrument is an upgraded version of the Mastcam instrument on NASA’s Curiosity rover, which arrived on Mars in 2012 and has captured a similar — but lower resolution — view of a solar eclipse by Phobos.

“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 members who operates the camera.

The Mastcam-Z instrument actually consists of two focused, zoomable cameras to provide stereo long-range imaging capability, giving scientists views of distant rock outcrops and geologic features on the surface of Mars. Using its highest frame rate imaging mode, scientists pointed the instrument skyward April 2, when Phobos was predicted to transit the sun.

“You can see details in the shape of Phobos’ shadow, like ridges and bumps on the moon’s landscape,” said Mark Lemmon, a planetary astronomer with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in a NASA press release. “You can also see sunspots. And it’s cool that you can see this eclipse exactly as the rover saw it from Mars.”

Scientists said eclipse observations help refine their measurements of Phobos’ orbit around Mars. The asteroid-like moon is getting about 6 feet (1.8 meters) closer to Mars every 100 years, and scientists expect it will either crash into Mars in about 50 million years, or break apart from gravitational forces to form a ring of particles around the planet.

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