Chinese spacecraft zooms in on biggest Martian moon Phobos that will crash into Red Planet


Months after the Perseverance rover captured a stunning video of a solar eclipse as Phobos blocked the sunlight when it crossed between the Sun and Mars, China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter has zoomed in on the Red Planet’s larger Moon.

The spacecraft snapped Phobos from a distance of 5,100 kilometers, beaming back a 160 feet (50 meters) per pixel resolution image.

The planet’s natural satellite was captured to mark the second anniversary of the launch of China’s maiden Mars mission that not only successfully placed it in the planet’s orbit but also landed on the surface and placed a rover on the Red Planet over a year ago. While the orbiter remains active hovering around Mars, the rover is in hibernation as the planet goes through harsh winter months.

While Earth has a single Moon, Mars has two such natural satellites — Phobos and Deimos. The latest observation is set to aid the scientific understanding of the Martian moon, which is doomed to crash into Mars in tens of millions of years. Nasa has said that as Phobos circles Mars, its gravity exerts small tidal forces on the Red Planet’s interior, slightly deforming rock in the planet’s crust and mantle. These forces also slowly change Phobos’ orbit.

The Chinese spacecraft, in a bid to capture the Moon, had to change its altitude and its orientation and scientists had to calculate a proper trajectory for the spacecraft when the Moon will be closest to the planet saving fuel.

The image captured by the spacecraft shows the cratered world of Phobos. (Photo: CNSA)

The image captured by the spacecraft shows the cratered world of Phobos and the Öpik Crater, named after Estonian astronomer and astrophysicist Ernst Öpik. He had proposed the theory of a cloud of comets beyond Pluto that we know as the Oort cloud.

The Perseverance rover had in April this year seen a stunning solar eclipse from Mars that lasted for nearly 40 seconds as the Moon soared past in its orbit. The eclipse was shorter than an average solar eclipse on Earth due to the small size of Phobos.

Launched in July 2020 from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province, the Tianwen-1 probe, named after an ancient Chinese poem, travelled a total of 475 million kilometers. The spacecraft entered Martian orbit on February 10, 2021, after conducting several trajectory maneuvers.

The Chinese space agency in June announced that the orbiter has completed its mission objective and successfully mapped the entire planet after circling the planet over 1,300 times in a space of just over a year. It released several images that showed surface features, canyons, and craters on the Red Planet.

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