Watch: Mars’ death-spiraling moon captured in gorgeous eclipse video
The moon is destined to crash into Mars’ surface.
The Perseverance rover of NASA has captured the clearest footage of a solar eclipse ever captured over Mars, and the results are spectacular.
On April 2, the rover captured this beautiful footage of Phobos, Mars’ potato-shaped moon, traveling across the face of the sun. During the eclipse, Phobos cast an irregular shadow across the Martian surface, almost as if it were the pupil of a giant eyeball rotating around in its socket.
Perseverance recorded the footage midway through its journey to a river delta on Mars’ 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater, where it will search for evidence of life on the Red Planet. Training its state-of-the-art Mastcam-Z camera on the sky, the rover recorded the misshapen moon’s solar transit with the greatest zoom and at the highest framerate ever.
“I knew it was going to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be this amazing,” Rachel Howson, a mission operations specialist at Malin Space Science Systems and one of the Mastcam-Z team members who operates the camera, said in a statement.
Phobos is one of Mars’ two natural satellites, with the even smaller Deimos, and is named after the Greek god of fear. It is around 157 times smaller than Earth’s moon (whose name comes from the Greek god of dread).
The brother moons, according to scientists, were once wandering asteroids that were snared into Mars’ orbit by the planet’s gravitational field. According to academics, the orbits of these imprisoned asteroids are unstable, and scientists estimate that Deimos will spin out into space in a few tens of millions of years, while Phobos will collide into Mars’ surface.
It’s the most zoomed-in, highest frame-rate observation of a Phobos solar eclipse ever taken from the Martian surface. Several Mars rovers have observed Phobos crossing in front of the Sun over the past 18 years. Spirit and Opportunity made the first observations back in 2004; Curiosity in 2019 was the first to record video of the event. Each time these eclipses are observed, they allow scientists to measure subtle shifts in Phobos’ orbit over time. The moon’s tidal forces pull on the deep interior of the Red Planet, as well as its crust and mantle; studying how much Phobos shifts over time reveals something about how resistant the crust and mantle are, and thus what kinds of materials they’re made of. The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.
Since 2004, when the twin NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity took the first time-lapse photographs of the moon’s passage, researchers have been observing the eclipse of Phobos from the Martian surface. Curiosity, NASA’s other active Mars rover, made similar observations in 2019. These previous photographs were grainy and in black and white, but because to Perserverance’s enhanced Mastcam-Z, scientists were able to capture the first color images of the eclipse. Mastcam-Z also has a solar filter, which reduces the intensity of incoming light and allows scientists to view features that have never been seen before.
“You can see details in the shape of Phobos’ shadow, like ridges and bumps on the moon’s landscape,” Mark Lemmon, a planetary astronomer with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in the statement. “You can also see sunspots. And it’s cool that you can see this eclipse exactly as the rover saw it from Mars.” Sunspots have been swarming the sun’s surface recently following an increase in solar activity, which have launched plasma waves at Earth’s magnetic field.
NASA isn’t simply interested in the pretty pictures of the eclipse. Observing Phobos’ route around Mars is critical for scientists to have a better grasp of the doomed moon’s death spiral. Scientists can use eclipse film to observe the gravitational forces between Mars and Phobos, as well as learn more about the planet’s innards and the tidal forces that shape its crust and mantle. The same forces act on Phobos, affecting its orbit in a subtle way.
Perseverance is a crucial component of NASA’s $2.7 billion Mars 2020 mission, which is collecting dozens of rock samples for ultimate return to Earth over the next decade, alongside the Curiosity rover, in search of indications of ancient life on Mars’ surface. The rover is accompanied by the Ingenuity helicopter, which has so far made 25 flights over Mars.