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Mars and Phobos
This multiple-exposure photo shows 22 minutes’ worth of Phobos’ orbit around Mars. (NASA / ESA / STScI Photo / Z. Levay)

Leave it to tiny Phobos to horn in on Mars’ glory in an image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The view of the Red Planet and the larger of its two moons, released today, is actually a testament to the orbiting observatory’s sharper vision.

Phobos is an irregular hunk of rock and ice, measuring no more than 16.5 miles in diameter. It’s small enough to sit comfortably inside the Beltway in Washington, D.C. (although residents of the nation’s capital would be none too comfortable).

Despite its status as one of the solar system’s smallest moons, Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 could pick out Phobos easily against the black background of space in a series of images acquired over the course of 22 minutes on May 12, 2016.

At the time, Mars was 50 million miles from Earth.

Scientists were actually focusing on Mars when Hubble made its observations. Having Phobos in the picture was a bonus, as the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute notes in today’s image advisory.

Phobos is often seen as a potential destination for the first crews heading to Mars and its moons. Its low gravity would make it easier for spaceships to land and take off again. Two years ago, a blueprint for Red Planet exploration titled “Humans Orbiting Mars” laid out a schedule for getting astronauts to Phobos by 2033, as a warmup for Mars surface operations beginning in 2039.

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin is a Phobos fan, partly because it’d make a great staging ground for trips down to Mars, but also because of a mysterious monolith on its surface. “When people find out about that, they are going to say, ‘Who put that there?'” Aldrin said in 2009.

Hubble’s latest picture won’t clear up that mystery, but it serves to highlight the appeal of Mars and its moons. It also serves as an opportunity to head off false claims that Mars could ever look as big as our own moon in earthly skies – a bit of fake news that seems to find its way onto the internet every August.

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