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Perseverance rover captures a unique view of a Mars solar eclipse

Thursday, April 21st 2022, 6:50 pm - You've never seen an eclipse quite like this!

Experiencing a solar eclipse here on Earth is amazing, but have you ever seen one from another planet?

On April 2, NASA's Perseverance rover performed a special task for the team back home. Deploying a special solar filter over its high-rez, zoomable Mastcam-Z camera, the robotic explorer looked up, directly at the Sun. Then, starting at just the right moment, it began snapping around three frames every second, for 50 seconds, to record the very first colour video of a solar eclipse on Mars!

Specifically, it caught the larger of Mars' two moons — Phobos — passing across the face of the Sun.

Phobos Mars Solar Eclipse - NASAThis image of Phobos, silhouetted against the disk of the Sun, was captured by Perseverance on the rover's 397th day (Sol) on Mars. This is just one of 160 frames the rover recorded. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS/SSI

Now, this wasn't a total solar eclipse. Even though Phobos orbits Mars at only 6,000 kilometres above the surface, and the Sun is smaller in Mars' sky than it appears from Earth, the potato-shaped moon is still too small to completely cover up the Sun’s disk. Instead, each time it crosses the Sun's face, it produces an annular eclipse. In fact, it's so unlike any eclipse we're used to seeing here on Earth, some may want to just call it a 'transit' instead.

This isn't just the first colour capture of a Phobos eclipse. NASA said that due to the next-gen capabilities of the Mastcam-Z, this is also the the most zoomed-in video of a Phobos solar eclipse, and the highest-frame rate one has ever been recorded at so far.

"You can see details in the shape of Phobos' shadow, like ridges and bumps on the moon's landscape," Mark Lemmon, the Space Science Institute planetary astronomer that has assisted with most Phobos observations by Mars rovers, told NASA. "You can also see sunspots. And it's cool that you can see this eclipse exactly as the rover saw it from Mars."

Something that may be even more cool about it? With the high-resolution colour view returned by Perseverance, the rover has allowed us to experience this eclipse as if we were there, standing on the surface of Mars, witnessing it for ourselves.

Before this, Curiosity had captured the best Phobos eclipse, back in 2019, along with a Deimos eclipse that same year. Both of those were tiny views, and only in black and white.

This new sequence captured by Perseverance is the best we've ever seen.

"I knew it was going to be good, but I didn't expect it to be this amazing," Rachel Howson, one of the Mastcam-Z team members at Malin Space Science Systems, said in a NASA press release.

According to NASA, Perseverance sends two copies of each image it takes — a low-resolution 'thumbnail' as a preview, and then the full-resolution images after — and Howson was stunned by what she saw when the full versions of this sequence arrived.

"It feels like a birthday or holiday when they arrive. You know what's coming, but there is still an element of surprise when you get to see the final product," she said.

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