On 30 April, in a carefully planned data-gathering exercise, ESA's Mars Express team used the passage of Phobos between Earth and the spacecraft to record precisely when a radio signal was blocked. The data may now lead to the best-ever determination of Phobos's orbit, knowledge that will help scientists better understand our planetary neighbour and its double-moon system.
You'll recall our earlier posting, when we described MEX team plans to take advantage of a rare alignment of Earth - Phobos - Mars Express to measure precisely when the bulk of Phobos would block radio communications between the spacecraft and ESA's 35m Cebreros station in Spain.
The prediction was that the 'occultation' would last around 12 seconds, from 21:21:22.9 to 21:21:34.1 UTC (spacecraft time). The predicted ground receive time was between 21:29:13.0 and 21:29:24.2 UTC (i.e. 7:50 mins later on Earth).
The activity took place as planned on Monday, 30 April.
Based on a reconstruction of the MEX orbit by ESA's Flight Dynamics team at ESOC, results indicate that the expected start time of the occultation by Phobos was 0.5 seconds earlier than that predicted. Similarly, the end time is 0.4 seconds earlier than predicted.
The plot below indicates the actual ...