PERSEVERANCE Mars Rover Captures Video of Phobos Passing in Front of the Sun

NASA’s Perseverance rover has captured a cinematic solar eclipse on Mars, featuring Phobos, one of the Red Planet’s moons.

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover has sent back yet another surreal vignette from our neighboring planet’s red, rocky surface. This time, the rover—which was launched on July 30, 2020 and landed on February 18, 2021—has captured a 40-second-long video of Mars’ moon Phobos passing in front of the Sun; offering a glimpse of a solar eclipse unlike anything we get here on Earth.

NASA delivered the new video to the public on April 20, 2022, noting that Perseverance captured the surreal event with its Mastcam-Z camera. Mastcam-Z is the name of the mast-mounted camera system that is equipped with a zoom function on the Perseverance rover. NASA notes “Mastcam-Z has cameras that can zoom in, focus, and take 3D pictures and video at high speed to allow detailed examination of distant objects.”

In the video we watch as Phobos, one of Mars’ two moons, passes between Perseverance’s Mastcam-Z on the martian surface and the Sun at the center of our solar system. NASA notes in a press release that the “potato-shaped” moon passing in front of the Sun offers an opportunity for scientists to “better understand [Phobos’] orbit and how its gravity pulls on the Martian surface, ultimately shaping the Red Planet’s crust and mantle.”

NASA also says that color sets this version of a Phobos solar eclipse apart from other ones. The space agency notes that Mastcam-Z has a solar filter that acts “like sunglasses” to reduce light intensity. (In the tweet above NASA engineer Tim Reyes offers insight into how our vantage point of the Sun here on Earth and that of Perseverance on Mars can be compared to better pinpoint the orbital positions of the two planets relative to our home star.)

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

As Phobos orbits around Mars its gravity exerts tidal forces on the Red Planet’s interior, slightly deforming rock in the planet’s crust and mantle. Phobos is a small moon—it’s only 13.8 miles in diameter, with a mass of just 24,000 pounds—but NASA says geophysicists can subsequently use those changes to better understand how “pliable” Mars’ interior is; an insight that will reveal more about the material makeup of the planet’s crust and mantle.

A color image of Phobos. Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona

As Perseverance continues on its astrobiological mission—searching for signs of past, or present, life on the Martian surface—many more solar eclipses involving Phobos will occur in the firmament above it. It only takes Phobos about eight hours to orbit Mars, while the Martian day is more than 24 hours long. That means it’s possible for Phobos to create two eclipses per Martian day. Making it a commonplace event on Mars. But still a novel sight here on Earth.

Feature image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS/SSI

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