And although the rover appears to have been watching the shadow of a potato crossing the red surface of Mars, this is actually Phobos, one of the two small moons of Mars.
Perseverance noticed a 40-second eclipse on April 2. If this sounds much shorter than the usual solar eclipses we might see from Earth when our moon passes in front of the sun, it’s because Phobos is about 157 times smaller than our moon.
The rover continues the 18-year history of eclipse-viewing robots on Mars, which began with NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rover in 2004, followed by recording the first video of a Martian eclipse in 2019.
Perseverance provided the best video of this eclipse to date using the zoom capabilities of the 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 arrive. You know what’s coming, but there’s still an element of surprise when you see the finished product.”
The video was also captured in color using a solar filter to reduce the intensity of the light, allowing scientists to gain more knowledge about Phobos.
“You can see details in the form of Phobos’ shadow, such as ridges and outcrops on a lunar landscape,” Mark Lemon, a planetary astronomer at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement. “You can also see sunspots. It’s great to see this eclipse just as the probe saw it from Mars.”
The tidal forces of Phobos’ gravitational pull caused the red planet’s crust and mantle to stretch, slightly distorting the Martian rocks. In turn, this gravitational force changes Phobos’ orbit.
Eclipse observations on Phobos help scientists track how the moon’s orbit has changed over time and better predict when Phobos’ time will end.
Phobos is essentially doomed and suffers a slow death spiral with each orbit as it constantly drifts near the surface of Mars. Tens of millions of years from now, it will either crash into Mars or break up into pieces that rain on Mars.
As scientists use eclipse observations to learn more about Phobos, the Perseverance Chariot has reached its next interesting target: an ancient river delta at Jezero Crater. The robotic explorer will collect fan-shaped rock and sediment samples at the crater rim, which was created where a river fed a crater lake billions of years ago.
“The Jezero Delta promises to be a veritable geological feast and one of the best locations on Mars to search for signs of past microscopic life,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “The answers are there – and Team Perseverance is ready to find them.”
The Ingenuity helicopter completed its 26th flight on the first anniversary of its maiden flight a year ago.
The helicopter will act as an air scout while the Perseverance explores the delta.