Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Mars rover eclipse photos to shed light on planet's composition (+video)

Scientists will use these photos to nail down the orbits of Phobos and Deimos precisely, and to determine how much they have changed over the last few years, researchers said. This information, in turn, could yield key insights about the interior of Mars, which remains largely mysterious.

By Mike WallSPACE.com / September 20, 2012

As part of a multi-mission campaign, NASA's Curiosity rover is observing Martian moon transits, the first of which involved the moon Phobos grazing the sun's disk. The event was observed on Martian day, or sol, 37 (Sept. 13) using Curiosity's Mast Camera, or Mastcam, equipped with special filters for directly observing the sun

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Enlarge

Photos of several partial solar eclipses on Mars snapped recently by NASA's Curiosity rover may help scientists better understand the Red Planet's interior structure and composition, researchers say.

Skip to next paragraph
An eclipse is always special -- and this one is captured by Curiosity, as the Martian moon Phobos sails between the Red Planet and the sun...

The 1-ton Curiosity rover captured Mars' tiny moon Phobos taking a nibble out of the sun's disk last Thursday (Sept. 13). Several days later, it watched additional partial eclipses caused by Phobos and Deimos, the Red Planet's other minuscule satellite (though images from these last two celestial events are not available yet).

Scientists will use these photos to nail down the orbits of Phobos and Deimos precisely, and to determine how much they have changed over the last few years, researchers said. This information, in turn, could yield key insights about the interior of Mars, which remains largely mysterious.

"We can't go inside Mars, but we can use these to tell how much Mars is deformed when the moons go by," Curiosity science team co-investigator Mark Lemmon, of Texas A&M University, told reporters today (Sept. 19). "So we measure the transits very precisely, we get information on Mars' interior structure." [7 Biggest Mysteries of Mars]

Phobos is just 14 miles (22 kilometers) wide on average, and Deimos is even smaller. Many scientists think both satellites are asteroids that were captured by the Red Planet's gravity long ago.

Neither moon will be in its current orbit forever. Deimos, which whips around Mars every 30 hours or so, is speeding up, while Phobos is slowing down in its eight-hour orbit. Scientists think Mars' gravity will probably destroy Phobos, perhaps in the next 10 to 15 million years or so.

"It will work its way in at some point and get so close that tidal forces from Mars will very likely break it up before it does start grazing the atmosphere and come down," Lemmon said. "So Mars may briefly have a ring system."

The Curiosity team has been doing more than just skywatching since landing the $2.5 billion robot inside Mars' huge Gale Crater on Aug. 5. Researchers have thoroughly vetted Curiosity and its 10 science instruments, which are designed to help the rover determine if the Gale area could ever have supported microbial life.

Permissions

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer

 

Doing Good

 

What happens when ordinary people decide to pay it forward? Extraordinary change...

Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

The athlete-adventurer co-founded a relay run called One Run for Boston that started in Los Angeles and ended at the marathon finish line to raise funds for victims.

 
 
Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!