NASA’s Perseverance rover watches eclipse of Mars’ doomed ‘potato’ moon

And although it looks like the rover was watching the shadow of a potato cross Mars’ red surface, it’s actually Phobos, one of Mars’ two small moons.

Perseverance observed the 40-second eclipse on April 2. If that seems much shorter than a typical solar eclipse we might see from Earth when our moon passes in front of the sun, that’s because Phobos is about 157 times smaller than our moon.

The rover continues an 18-year history of robots observing eclipses on Mars that began with NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2004 and was followed by Curiosity capturing the first video of a Martian eclipse in 2019.

Perseverance provided the best video of this eclipse using the zoom capabilities of its mast-mounted camera system.

“I knew it was going to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be this amazing,” Rachel Howson, Mastcam-Z camera operator at Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, said in a statement. “It feels like a birthday or a holiday when they come around. You know what’s coming, but there’s always an element of surprise when you get to see the final product.”

The video was also captured in color using a solar filter to reduce light intensity, allowing scientists to better understand Phobos.

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

The tidal forces of Phobos’ gravity pull on the Red Planet’s crust and mantle, slightly deforming the Martian rock. In turn, this gravitational force alters the orbit of Phobos.

Phobos eclipse observations help scientists track the changing orbit of the moon over time and better predict when Phobos’ time will end.

Phobos is essentially doomed and experiences a slow death spiral with each orbit as it constantly drifts closer to the Martian surface. Tens of millions of years from now it will crash into Mars or shatter into pieces that will rain down on Mars.

As scientists use eclipse observations to learn more about Phobos, the Perseverance rover has arrived at its next intriguing target: an ancient river delta in Jezero Crater. The robotic explorer will collect samples of fan-shaped rock and sediment from the rim of the crater, created where a river fed the crater lake billions of years ago.

“The Jezero Crater Delta promises to be a veritable geological feast and one of the best places on Mars to look for signs of past microscopic life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a press release. “The answers are out there – and Team Perseverance is ready to find them.”

And the Ingenuity helicopter just completed its 26th flight on the first anniversary of its first flight a year ago.

The helicopter will serve as an aerial scout while Perseverance explores the delta.


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