The next solar eclipse to cross North America is fast approaching, but on Mars, the Red Planet has already experienced one of its own celestial shadow events this year.
On February 8, the asteroid-sized Martian moon Phobos passed in front of the sun above Jezero Crater, the area that just happens to be home to NASA's Perseverance rover. As Phobos continued across the sky, Percy's left Mastcam-Z camera moved away from its usual landscape subject toward the satellite, snapping a few dozen photos for project coordinators at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). .
The images show a full lunar eclipse markedly different from the ones Earth receives every 2.5 years or so. Given the size and shape of Phobos, the moon does not completely cover the sun. Instead, the misshapen 17 x 14 x 11 mile piece of rock blocks only a small part of the star as it continues on its way. The result probably looks more like a googly eye than an impressive event on the cosmic calendar, but it's still a pretty impressive view.
Phobos and its little sister, Deimos, were discovered in 1877 by American astronomer Asaph Hall and are named after the Greek words for “Fear” and “Dread”, respectively. The origins of the two satellites are not fully understood, although astronomers believe they are either asteroids or debris from the formation of the solar system that occurred around 4.5 billion years ago.
[Related: The Mars Express just got up close and personal with Phobos.]
As Earth's Moon continues to move away from its planetary pull at a rate of about 1.5 inches per year, Phobos is actually being pulled towards Mars – about six feet closer every century. Although this results in a relatively slow descent, it still means that the Moon will eventually crash into Mars or break it into thousands of fragments to form a planetary ring like that of Saturn. Don't worry, because this grand finale isn't expected for another 50 million years. Meanwhile, Phobos will continue to orbit Mars three times a day, while the slower Deimos will complete its journey every 30 hours.
Perseverance's lunar eclipse capture, while incredible in its own right, understandably fails to capture much detail of the moon's pockmarked surface. Fortunately, the European Space Agency's Mars Express was observed more closely in 2022, when the satellite came within just 52 miles of the Moon to take its own photos.