Today, NASA announced that its Mars Curiosity Rover captured not one, but two solar eclipses from the surface of Mars last month – one each for both of its moons.
In order to capture the eclipses, the Curiosity Rover had to bring along special “eclipse glasses”, as NASA explains on the JPL website:
When NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover landed in 2012, it brought along eclipse glasses. The solar filters on its Mast Camera (Mastcam) allow it to stare directly at the Sun. Over the past few weeks, Curiosity has been putting them to good use by sending back some spectacular imagery of solar eclipses caused by Phobos and Deimos, Mars’ two moons.
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They go on to explain that because Phobos’ diameter is 11.5 kilometers (7 miles), and Deimos’ diameter is 2.3 kilometers (1.5 miles), they’re actually considered transits, rather than the dramatic total solar eclipses that we see here on Earth. (You may also enjoy reading about the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite that launched almost a year ago and is currently scouring the cosmos looking for exoplanets – planets around other stars – using this same method.)
Curiosity captured the first eclipse on March 17th when Deimos transited the sun.
It’s so cute and little!
Phobos’ transit occurred on March 26th, and made for much more impressive viewing.
Curiosity has observed a total of 40 transits by Phobos, but just 8 by Deimos.
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Writing for Space.com, Meghan Bartels explained why this is significant for astronomers:
Each set of observations helps scientists further refine each moon’s orbit of Mars — when the rovers first started watching for eclipses, scientists’ estimates for where Deimos should be were about 25 miles (40 kilometers) off.
“More observations over time help pin down the details of each orbit,” Mark Lemmon, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University in College Station, said in a statement. “Those orbits change all the time in response to the gravitational pull of Mars, Jupiter or even each Martian moon pulling on the other.”
NASA also released images showing how dark the sky became when Phobos transited:
Fun fact: unlike the Spirit and Opportunity rovers (#NeverForget), Curiosity doesn’t have solar panels. Instead, it uses a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTP. That’s a lot of fancy words to say that it uses the heat generated by decaying plutonium dioxide as a power source. This was designed to last for at least two Earth years, however Curiosity is still going strong after landing in August 2012.
Cover image via iStockphoto