NASA’s Perseverance rover has captured a spectacular video of an April solar eclipse on Mars. The video clearly depicts Phobos as it eclipses the sun, as seen from the Martian surface.
“You can see details in the shape of Phobos’ shadow, like ridges and bumps on the moon’s landscape,” said planetary astronomer Mark Lemmon in a statement. Lemmon, of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, has orchestrated most of the Phobos observations by Mars rovers to date. “You can also see sunspots. And it’s cool that you can see this eclipse exactly as the rover saw it from Mars.”
Without further ado, here’s the video:
The eclipse lasted a little over forty seconds. (That’s much shorter than the duration of a typical lunar eclipse on Earth. Why so short? NASA explains, “Phobos is about 157 times smaller than Earth’s Moon. Mars’ other moon, Deimos, is even smaller.”)
This isn’t the first time a NASA spacecraft has managed to capture a solar eclipse on Mars. In a solar-system first, the twin NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity recorded time-lapse video of Phobos during a 2004 solar eclipse. Later, Curiosity took up the baton, sending home eclipse videos from its Mastcam camera system. And Perseverance has been using its Mastcam-Z instrument to watch the Martian skies since it landed in February 2021.
But NASA said in a statement that Perseverance has now delivered to us “the most zoomed-in video of a Phobos solar eclipse yet – and at the highest-frame rate ever.”
This most recent video of Phobos runs at about four frames per second (“video rates of 4 frames/sec or faster for subframes,” per official materials). That’s low for consumer video, which runs at about 24-60 fps, depending on whether you’re gaming or watching a DVD. But it’s a real milestone for a spacecraft. The video even impressed mission scientists familiar with Percy’s capabilities. “I knew it was going to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be this amazing,” said Rachel Howson, a Mastcam-Z team member who operates the camera.
All this Martian eye candy comes to us by way of Perseverance’s Mastcam-Z zooming panoramic camera system. As its name suggests, the instrument is based on Curiosity’s Mastcam. In its current, upgraded form, Mastcam-Z returns “high-definition video, panoramic color and 3D images of the Martian surface and features in the atmosphere.” The instrument uses a Truesense CCD, developed by Kodak.
The rover phones home with about 18.5 MB of data per sol, on average, and the number of images varies with compression. But it’s not just a wildly expensive machine for generating space-themed 1600×1200 desktop wallpapers. Mastcam-Z’s bandpass filter, combined with its stereo vision, allows Perseverance to tell what kind of rocks it’s looking at and even how old they are.
Before sending bulk data, Perseverance sends lower-resolution thumbnails that give a clear preview of images to come. Even so, Howson says, she was stunned by the full-resolution versions once they finally got to Earth. “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.”
For more on Perseverance and its mission, visit https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/.
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