Mars only has two moons: Phobos and Deimos. They’re strange, for moons, little more than lumpy, potato-shaped chunks of rock. They’re much too small for self-gravitation to have made them round. And one of them, Deimos, has an unusually tilted orbit.
What does that slight tilt tell us about Deimos? About Mars?
Humans to Mars. That’s the plan right? The problem is that sending humans down to the surface of Mars is one of the most complicated and ambitious goals that we can attempt. It’s a huge step to go from low Earth orbit, then lunar landings, and then all the way to Mars, a journey of hundreds of millions of kilometers and 2 years at the least.
Welcome to the moons of Mars, as you’ve never seen them.
NASA’s aging 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter recently snapped some unique views of the twin moons Phobos and Deimos, in an effort to better understand their texture and surface composition. The images are courtesy of the spacecraft’s THEMIS (the Thermal Emission Imaging System) heat sensitive instrument, and show the thermal gradient across the surface of the moons in color. Odyssey has been studying the moons of Mars since September 2017. The recent images of Phobos taken on April 24, 2019 are especially intriguing, as they occurred during full illumination phase.
The ESA’s Mars Express probe has been studying Mars and its Moons for many years. While there are several missions currently in orbit around Mars, Mars Express‘s near-polar elliptical orbit gives it some advantages over the others. For one, its orbital path takes it closer to Phobos than any other spacecraft, which allows it to periodically observe the moon from distances of around 150 km (93 mi).
Because of this, the probe is in an ideal position to study Mars’ moons and capture images of them. On occasion, this allows for some interesting photo opportunities. For example, in November of 2017, while taking pictures of Phobos and Deimos, the probe spotted Saturn in the background. This fortuitous event led to the creation of some beautiful images, which were put together to produce a video.
Since 2003, Mars Express has been studying Phobos and Deimos in the hopes of learning more about these mysterious objects. While it has learned much about their size, appearance and position, much remains unknown about their composition, how and where they formed, and what their surface conditions are like. To answer these questions, the probe has been conducting regular flybys of these moons and taking pictures of them.
The video that was recently released by the ESA combines 30 such images which show Phobos passing through the frame. In the background, Saturn is visible as a small ringed dot, despite being roughly 1 billion km away. The images that were used to create this video were taken by the probes High Resolution Stereo Camera on November 26th, 2016, while the probe was traveling at a speed of about 3 km/s.
This photobomb was not unexpected, since the Mars Express repeatedly uses background reference stars and other bodies in the Solar System to confirm positions of the moons in the sky. In so doing, the probe is able to calculate the position of Phobos and Deimos with an accuracy of up to a few kilometers. The probes ideal position for capturing detailed images has also helped scientists to learn more about the surface features and structure of the two moons.
For instance, the pictures taken during the probe’s close flybys of Phobos showed its bumpy, irregular and dimpled surface in detail.The moon’s largest impact crater – the Stickney Crater – is also visible in one of the frames. Measuring 9 km ( mi) in diameter, this crater accounts for a third of the moon’s diameter, making it one the largest impact craters relative to body size in the Solar System.
In another image, taken on January 15th, 2018, Deimos is visible as an irregular and partially shadowed body in the foreground, while the delicate rings of Saturn are just visible encircling the small dot in the background (see below). In addition, Mars Express also obtained images of Phobos set against a reference star on January 8th, 2018 (see above) and close-up images of Phobos’ pockmarked surface on September 12th, 2017.
In the future, the Mars Express probe is expected to reveal a great deal more about Mars’ system of moons. In addition to the enduring questions of their origins, formation and composition, there are also questions about where future missions could land in order to study the surface directly. In particular, Phobos has been considered for a possible landing and sample-return mission.
Because of its nearness to Mars and the fact that one side is always facing towards the planet, the moon could make for an ideal location for a permanent observation post. This post would allow for the long-term study of the Martian surface and atmosphere, could act as a communications relay for other spacecraft, and could even serve as a base for future missions to the surface.
If and when such a mission to Phobos becomes a reality, it is the Mars Express probe that will determine where the ideal landing site would be. In essence, by studying the Martian moons to learning more about them, Mars Express is helping to prepare future missions to the Red Planet.
Be sure to check out the time-lapse video of Phobos and Saturn, courtesy of the ESA:
Science fiction has told us again and again, we belong out there, among the stars. But before we can build that vast galactic empire, we’ve got to learn how to just survive in space. Fortunately, we happen to live in a Solar System with many worlds, large and small that we can use to become a spacefaring civilization.
This is half of an epic two-part article that I’m doing with Isaac Arthur, who runs an amazing YouTube channel all about futurism, often about the exploration and colonization of space. Make sure you subscribe to his channel.
This article is about colonizing the inner Solar System, from tiny Mercury, the smallest planet, out to Mars, the focus of so much attention by Elon Musk and SpaceX. In the other article, Isaac will talk about what it’ll take to colonize the outer Solar System, and harness its icy riches. You can read these articles in either order, just read them both.
At the time I’m writing this, humanity’s colonization efforts of the Solar System are purely on Earth. We’ve exploited every part of the planet, from the South Pole to the North, from huge continents to the smallest islands. There are few places we haven’t fully colonized yet, and we’ll get to that.
But when it comes to space, we’ve only taken the shortest, most tentative steps. There have been a few temporarily inhabited space stations, like Mir, Skylab and the Chinese Tiangong Stations.
Our first and only true colonization of space is the International Space Station, built in collaboration with NASA, ESA, the Russian Space Agency and other countries. It has been permanently inhabited since November 2nd, 2000. Needless to say, we’ve got our work cut out for us.
Before we talk about the places and ways humans could colonize the rest of the Solar System, it’s important to talk about what it takes to get from place to place.
Just to get from the surface of Earth into orbit around our planet, you need to be going about 10 km/s sideways. This is orbit, and the only way we can do it today is with rockets. Once you’ve gotten into Low Earth Orbit, or LEO, you can use more propellant to get to other worlds.
If you want to travel to Mars, you’ll need an additional 3.6 km/s in velocity to escape Earth gravity and travel to the Red Planet. If you want to go to Mercury, you’ll need another 5.5 km/s.
And if you wanted to escape the Solar System entirely, you’d need another 8.8 km/s. We’re always going to want a bigger rocket.
The most efficient way to transfer from world to world is via the Hohmann Transfer. This is where you raise your orbit and drift out until you cross paths with your destination. Then you need to slow down, somehow, to go into orbit.
One of our primary goals of exploring and colonizing the Solar System will be to gather together the resources that will make future colonization and travel easier. We need water for drinking, and to split it apart for oxygen to breathe. We can also turn this water into rocket fuel. Unfortunately, in the inner Solar System, water is a tough resource to get and will be highly valued.
We need solid ground. To build our bases, to mine our resources, to grow our food, and to protect us from the dangers of space radiation. The more gravity we can get the better, since low gravity softens our bones, weakens our muscles, and harms us in ways we don’t fully understand.
Each world and place we colonize will have advantages and disadvantages. Let’s be honest, Earth is the best place in the Solar System, it’s got everything we could ever want and need. Everywhere else is going to be brutally difficult to colonize and make self-sustaining.
We do have one huge advantage, though. Earth is still here, we can return whenever we like. The discoveries made on our home planet will continue to be useful to humanity in space through communications, and even 3D printing. Once manufacturing is sophisticated enough, a discovery made on one world could be mass produced half a solar system away with the right raw ingredients.
We will learn how to make what we need, wherever we are, and how to transport it from place to place, just like we’ve always done.
Mercury is the closest planet from the Sun, and one of the most difficult places that we might attempt the colonize. Because it’s so close to the Sun, it receives an enormous amount of energy. During the day, temperatures can reach 427 C, but without an atmosphere to trap the heat, night time temperatures dip down to -173 C. There’s essentially no atmosphere, 38% the gravity of Earth, and a single solar day on Mercury lasts 176 Earth days.
Mercury does have some advantages, though. It has an average density almost as high as Earth, but because of its smaller size, it actually means it has a higher percentage of metal than Earth. Mercury will be incredibly rich in metals and minerals that future colonists will need across the Solar System.
With the lower gravity and no atmosphere, it’ll be far easier to get that material up into orbit and into transfer trajectories to other worlds.
But with the punishing conditions on the planet, how can we live there? Although the surface of Mercury is either scorching or freezing, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft turned up regions of the planet which are in eternal shadow near the poles. In fact, these areas seem to have water ice, which is amazing for anywhere this close to the Sun.
You could imagine future habitats huddled into those craters, pulling in solar power from just over the crater rim, using the reservoirs of water ice for air, fuel and water.
High powered solar robots could scour the surface of Mercury, gathering rare metals and other minerals to be sent off world. Because it’s bathed in the solar winds, Mercury will have large deposits of Helium-3, useful for future fusion reactors.
Over time, more and more of the raw materials of Mercury will find their way to the resource hungry colonies spread across the Solar System.
It also appears there are lava tubes scattered across Mercury, hollows carved out by lava flows millions of years ago. With work, these could be turned into safe, underground habitats, protected from the radiation, high temperatures and hard vacuum on the surface.
With enough engineering ability, future colonists will be able to create habitats on the surface, wherever they like, using a mushroom-shaped heat shield to protect a colony built on stilts to keep it off the sun-baked surface.
Mercury is smaller than Mars, but is a good deal denser, so it has about the same gravity, 38% of Earth’s. Now that might turn out to be just fine, but if we need more, we have the option of using centrifugal force to increase it. Space Stations can generate artificial gravity by spinning, but you can combine normal gravity with spin-gravity to create a stronger field than either would have.
So our mushroom habitat’s stalk could have an interior spinning section with higher gravity for those living inside it. You get a big mirror over it, shielding you from solar radiation and heat, you have stilts holding it off the ground, like roots, that minimize heat transfer from the warmer areas of ground outside the shield, and if you need it you have got a spinning section inside the stalk. A mushroom habitat.
Venus is the second planet in the Solar System, and it’s the evil twin of Earth. Even though it has roughly the same size, mass and surface gravity of our planet, it’s way too close to the Sun. The thick atmosphere acts like a blanket, trapping the intense heat, pushing temperatures at the surface to 462 C.
Everywhere on the planet is 462 C, so there’s no place to go that’s cooler. The pure carbon dioxide atmosphere is 90 times thicker than Earth, which is equivalent to being a kilometer beneath the ocean on Earth.
In the beginning, colonizing the surface of Venus defies our ability. How do you survive and stay cool in a thick poisonous atmosphere, hot enough to melt lead? You get above it.
One of the most amazing qualities of Venus is that if you get into the high atmosphere, about 52.5 kilometers up, the air pressure and temperature are similar to Earth. Assuming you can get above the poisonous clouds of sulphuric acid, you could walk outside a floating colony in regular clothes, without a pressure suit. You’d need a source of breathable air, though.
Even better, breathable air is a lifting gas in the cloud tops of Venus. You could imagine a future colony, filled with breathable air, floating around Venus. Because the gravity on Venus is roughly the same as Earth, humans wouldn’t suffer any of the side effects of microgravity. In fact, it might be the only place in the entire Solar System other than Earth where we don’t need to account for low gravity.
Now the day on Venus is incredibly long, 243 earth days, so if you stay over the same place the whole time it would be light for four months then dark for four months. Not ideal for solar power on a first glance, but Venus turns so slowly that even at the equator you could stay ahead of the sunset at a fast walk.
So if you have floating colonies it would take very little effort to stay constantly on the light side or dark side or near the twilight zone of the terminator. You are essentially living inside a blimp, so it may as well be mobile. And on the day side it would only take a few solar panels and some propellers to stay ahead. And since it is so close to the Sun, there’s plenty of solar power. What could you do with it?
The atmosphere itself would probably serve as a source of raw materials. Carbon is the basis for all life on Earth. We’ll need it for food and building materials in space. Floating factories could process the thick atmosphere of Venus, to extract carbon, oxygen, and other elements.
Heat resistant robots could be lowered down to the surface to gather minerals and then retrieved before they’re cooked to death.
Venus does have a high gravity, so launching rockets up into space back out of Venus’ gravity well will be expensive.
Over longer periods of time, future colonists might construct large solar shades to shield themselves from the scorching heat, and eventually, even start cooling the planet itself.
The next planet from the Sun is Earth, the best planet in the Solar System. One of the biggest advantages of our colonization efforts will be to get heavy industry off our planet and into space. Why pollute our atmosphere and rivers when there’s so much more space… in space.
Over time, more and more of the resource gathering will happen off world, with orbital power generation, asteroid mining, and zero gravity manufacturing. Earth’s huge gravity well means that it’s best to bring materials down to Earth, not carry them up to space.
However, the normal gravity, atmosphere and established industry of Earth will allow us to manufacture the lighter high tech goods that the rest of the Solar System will need for their own colonization efforts.
But we haven’t completely colonized Earth itself. Although we’ve spread across the land, we know very little about the deep ocean. Future colonies under the oceans will help us learn more about self-sufficient colonies, in extreme environments. The oceans on Earth will be similar to the oceans on Europa or Enceladus, and the lessons we learn here will teach us to live out there.
As we return to space, we’ll colonize the region around our planet. We’ll construct bigger orbital colonies in Low Earth Orbit, building on our lessons from the International Space Station.
One of the biggest steps we need to take, is understanding how to overcome the debilitating effects of microgravity: the softened bones, weakened muscles and more. We need to perfect techniques for generating artificial gravity where there is none.
The best technique we have is rotating spacecraft to generate artificial gravity. Just like we saw in 2001, and The Martian, by rotating all or a portion of a spacecraft, you can generated an outward centrifugal force that mimics the acceleration of gravity. The larger the radius of the space station, the more comfortable and natural the rotation feels.
Low Earth Orbit also keeps a space station within the Earth’s protective magnetosphere, limiting the amount of harmful radiation that future space colonists will experience.
Other orbits are useful too, including geostationary orbit, which is about 36,000 kilometers above the surface of the Earth. Here spacecraft orbit the Earth at exactly the same rate as the rotation of Earth, which means that stations appear in fixed positions above our planet, useful for communication.
Geostationary orbit is higher up in Earth’s gravity well, which means these stations will serve a low-velocity jumping off points to reach other places in the Solar System. They’re also outside the Earth’s atmospheric drag, and don’t require any orbital boosting to keep them in place.
By perfecting orbital colonies around Earth, we’ll develop technologies for surviving in deep space, anywhere in the Solar System. The same general technology will work anywhere, whether we’re in orbit around the Moon, or out past Pluto.
When the technology is advanced enough, we might learn to build space elevators to carry material and up down from Earth’s gravity well. We could also build launch loops, electromagnetic railguns that launch material into space. These launch systems would also be able to loft supplies into transfer trajectories from world to world throughout the Solar System.
Earth orbit, close to the homeworld gives us the perfect place to develop and perfect the technologies we need to become a true spacefaring civilization. Not only that, but we’ve got the Moon.
The Moon, of course, is the Earth’s only natural satellite, which orbits us at an average distance of about 400,000 kilometers. Almost ten times further than geostationary orbit.
The Moon takes a surprising amount of velocity to reach from Low Earth Orbit. It’s close, but expensive to reach, thrust speaking.
But that fact that it’s close makes the Moon an ideal place to colonize. It’s close to Earth, but it’s not Earth. It’s airless, bathed in harmful radiation and has very low gravity. It’s the place that humanity will learn to survive in the harsh environment of space.
But it still does have some resources we can exploit. The lunar regolith, the pulverized rocky surface of the Moon, can be used as concrete to make structures. Spacecraft have identified large deposits of water at the Moon’s poles, in its permanently shadowed craters. As with Mercury, these would make ideal locations for colonies.
Our spacecraft have also captured images of openings to underground lava tubes on the surface of the Moon. Some of these could be gigantic, even kilometers high. You could fit massive cities inside some of these lava tubes, with room to spare.
Helium-3 from the Sun rains down on the surface of the Moon, deposited by the Sun’s solar wind, which could be mined from the surface and provide a source of fuel for lunar fusion reactors. This abundance of helium could be exported to other places in the Solar System.
The far side of the Moon is permanently shadowed from Earth-based radio signals, and would make an ideal location for a giant radio observatory. Telescopes of massive size could be built in the much lower lunar gravity.
We talked briefly about an Earth-based space elevator, but an elevator on the Moon makes even more sense. With the lower gravity, you can lift material off the surface and into lunar orbit using cables made of materials we can manufacture today, such as Zylon or Kevlar.
One of the greatest threats on the Moon is the dusty regolith itself. Without any kind of weathering on the surface, these dust particles are razor sharp, and they get into everything. Lunar colonists will need very strict protocols to keep the lunar dust out of their machinery, and especially out of their lungs and eyes, otherwise it could cause permanent damage.
Although the vast majority of asteroids in the Solar System are located in the main asteroid belt, there are still many asteroids orbiting closer to Earth. These are known as the Near Earth Asteroids, and they’ve been the cause of many of Earth’s great extinction events.
These asteroids are dangerous to our planet, but they’re also an incredible resource, located close to our homeworld.
The amount of velocity it takes to get to some of these asteroids is very low, which means travel to and from these asteroids takes little energy. Their low gravity means that extracting resources from their surface won’t take a tremendous amount of energy.
And once the orbits of these asteroids are fully understood, future colonists will be able to change the orbits using thrusters. In fact, the same system they use to launch minerals off the surface would also push the asteroids into safer orbits.
These asteroids could be hollowed out, and set rotating to provide artificial gravity. Then they could be slowly moved into safe, useful orbits, to act as space stations, resupply points, and permanent colonies.
There are also gravitationally stable points at the Sun-Earth L4 and L5 Lagrange Points. These asteroid colonies could be parked there, giving us more locations to live in the Solar System.
The future of humanity will include the colonization of Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun. On the surface, Mars has a lot going for it. A day on Mars is only a little longer than a day on Earth. It receives sunlight, unfiltered through the thin Martian atmosphere. There are deposits of water ice at the poles, and under the surface across the planet.
Martian ice will be precious, harvested from the planet and used for breathable air, rocket fuel and water for the colonists to drink and grow their food. The Martian regolith can be used to grow food. It does have have toxic perchlorates in it, but that can just be washed out.
The lower gravity on Mars makes it another ideal place for a space elevator, ferrying goods up and down from the surface of the planet.
Unlike the Moon, Mars has a weathered surface. Although the planet’s red dust will get everywhere, it won’t be toxic and dangerous as it is on the Moon.
Like the Moon, Mars has lava tubes, and these could be used as pre-dug colony sites, where human Martians can live underground, protected from the hostile environment.
Mars has two big problems that must be overcome. First, the gravity on Mars is only a third that of Earth’s, and we don’t know the long term impact of this on the human body. It might be that humans just can’t mature properly in the womb in low gravity.
Researchers have proposed that Mars colonists might need to spend large parts of their day on rotating centrifuges, to simulate Earth gravity. Or maybe humans will only be allowed to spend a few years on the surface of Mars before they have to return to a high gravity environment.
The second big challenge is the radiation from the Sun and interstellar cosmic rays. Without a protective magnetosphere, Martian colonists will be vulnerable to a much higher dose of radiation. But then, this is the same challenge that colonists will face anywhere in the entire Solar System.
That radiation will cause an increased risk of cancer, and could cause mental health issues, with dementia-like symptoms. The best solution for dealing with radiation is to block it with rock, soil or water. And Martian colonists, like all Solar System colonists will need to spend much of their lives underground or in tunnels carved out of rock.
In addition to Mars itself, the Red Planet has two small moons, Phobos and Deimos. These will serve as ideal places for small colonies. They’ll have the same low gravity as asteroid colonies, but they’ll be just above the gravity well of Mars. Ferries will travel to and from the Martian moons, delivering fresh supplies and sending Martian goods out to the rest of the Solar System.
We’re not certain yet, but there are good indicators these moons might have ice inside them, if so that is an excellent source of fuel and could make initial trips to Mars much easier by allowing us to send a first expedition to those moons, who then begin producing fuel to be used to land on Mars and to leave Mars and return home.
According to Elon Musk, if a Martian colony can reach a million inhabitants, it’ll be self-sufficient from Earth or any other world. At that point, we would have a true, Solar System civilization.
Now, continue on to the other half of this article, written by Isaac Arthur, where he talks about what it will take to colonize the outer Solar System. Where water ice is plentiful but solar power is feeble. Where travel times and energy require new technologies and techniques to survive and thrive.
Mars and Earth have several things in common. Like Earth, Mars is a terrestrial planet (i.e. composed of silicate rock and minerals). It also has polar ice caps, a tilted axis, and evidence of liquid water on its surface. On top of that, Mars and Earth are the only terrestrial planets in the Solar System to have natural satellites.
In fact, Mars has two satellites, which are appropriately named Phobos and Deimos (named after the Greek gods of horror and terror, respectively). Of the two, Deimos is the smaller moon and orbits at a greater distance from the planet. And like Deimos, it has the characteristics of an asteroid, which is a strong indication of where it may have come from.
Discovery and Naming:
Deimos was discovered in 1877 by American astronomer Asaph Hall, who was deliberately searching for Martian moons at the United States Naval Observatory (USNO). Its name was suggested shortly thereafter by Henry Madan, the Science Master of Eton College, and was derived from Homer’s The Iliad.
Size, Mass and Orbit:
Deimos has a mean radius of between 6 and 6.38 km (3.73 – 3.96 mi). However, the moon is not a round body, and measures roughly 15 × 12.2 × 11 km (9.32 x 7.58 x 6.835 mi), making it 0.56 times the size of Phobos. At 1.4762 × 1015 kg, or 1.4762 trillion metric tons, Deimos is 1/49,735,808 times as massive as the Moon. As a result, Deimos’ surface gravity is very weak, just 0.003 m/s – or 0.000306 g.
Deimos’ orbit is nearly circular, ranging from 23455.5 km at periapsis (closest) to 23470.9 km at apoapsis (farthest) – which works out to an average distance (semi-major axis) of 23,463.2 km. With an average orbital speed of 1.3513 km/s, it takes 30 hours, 18 minutes and 43.2 seconds to complete a single orbit (or 1.263 days).
Composition and Surface Features:
Deimos, like Phobos, is similar in composition to carbonaceous chondrite and silicate/carbon-rich (C- and D-type) asteroids. Though the surface is cratered, it is considerably smoother than Phobos’ surface, which is due to its craters being filled with regolith.
Only two geological features on Deimos have been given names – the craters of Voltaire and Swift. These features take their names from the famous 17th/18th century French and English writers who speculated about the existence of two Martian moons before they were even discovered.
The origin of Mars’ moons remains unknown, but some hypotheses exist. The most widely-accepted theory states that, based on their similarity to C- or D-type asteroids, they are objects that were kicked out of the Asteroid Belt by Jupiter’s gravity. They were then captured by Mars’ and fell into their current orbits due to atmospheric drag or tidal forces.
However, this theory remains controversial since Mars’ current atmosphere is too thin. As such, it is highly unlikely that it would have been able to cause enough drag to slow either moon down enough for them to have achieved their current orbits. A modified version of this hypothesis is that Phobos and Deimos were once a binary asteroid, which was then captured and separated by tidal forces.
Other popular hypotheses include that they were formed by accretion in their current orbits, or that Mars was once surrounded by many large asteroids which were ejected into orbit it after a collision with a planetesimal – like the one that formed Earth’s Moon. Over time, these would have fallen back to the surface until only Phobos and Deimos remained.
Overall, Deimos history of exploration is tied to that of Mars and Phobos. While no landings have been made on its surface, several have been proposed in the past. The first of these were made as part of the Soviet Phobos (Fobos) program, which involved two probes – Fobos 1 and 2 – that were launched in July of 1988.
If the first proved successful in landing on Phobos, the second would been diverted to make a landing on Deimos. However, the first probe was lost en route to Mars while the second managed to returned some data and images of Phobos surface before contact was lost.
In 1997-1998, NASA selected the proposed Aladdin mission as a finalist for its Discovery Program. The plan was to visit both Phobos and Deimos with sample return missions involving an orbiter and lander. After reaching the surface, the landers would collect samples and then launch them back to the orbiters (which would return them to Earth). However, the mission was passed over in favor of the MESSENGER probe, which was sent to study Mercury.
Other missions have been proposed with are still under study. These include the “Hall” concept proposed in 2008, which calls for a probe that relies on solar-electric propulsion (SEP) to reach Mars and return with samples to Earth. Another was the Gulliver mission, a concept proposed in 2010 which would attempt to retrieve 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of material from Deimos’ surface.
Deimos has been photographed from the surface of Mars by both the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers. And someday, actual astronauts may be able to look up at it from the Martian surface. From their point of view, Deimos would appear like a star to the unaided eye. At its brightest, it might look like Venus does from here on Earth.
For those watching over an extended period of time, Deimos would pass directly in front of the Sun quite regularly. It’s too small to cause a total eclipse, it would look like a black dot moving across the face of the Sun.
Many of the planets in our Solar System have a system of moons. But among the rocky planets that make up the inner Solar System, having moons is a privilege enjoyed only by two planets: Earth and Mars. And for these two planets, it is a rather limited privilege compared to gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn which each have several dozen moons.
Whereas Earth has only one satellite (aka. the Moon), Mars has two small moons in orbit around it: Phobos and Deimos. And whereas the vast majority of moons in our Solar System are large enough to become round spheres similar to our own Moon, Phobos and Deimos are asteroid-sized and misshapen in appearance.
When you’re walking around on soft ground, do you notice how your feet leave impressions? Perhaps you’ve tracked some of the looser earth in your yard into the house on occasion? If you were to pick up some of these traces – what we refer to as dirt or soil – and examine them beneath a microscope, what would you see?
Essentially, you would be seeing the components of what is known as regolith, which is a collection of particles of dust, soil, broken rock, and other materials found here on Earth. But interestingly enough, this same basic material can be found in other terrestrial environments as well – including the Moon, Mars, other planets, and even asteroids.
The term regolith refers to any layer of material covering solid rock, which can come in the form of dust, soil or broken rock. The word is derived from the combination of two Greek words – rhegos (which means “blanket”) and lithos (which means “rock).
On Earth, regolith takes the form of dirt, soil, sand, and other components that are formed as a result of natural weathering and biological processes. Due to a combination of erosion, alluvial deposits (i.e. moving water deposing sand), volcanic eruptions, or tectonic activity, the material is slowly ground down and laid out over solid bedrock.
It can be made up of clays, silicates, various minerals, groundwater, and organic molecules. Regolith on Earth can vary from being essentially absent to being hundreds of meters thick. Its can also be very young (in the form of ash, alluvium, or lava rock that was just deposited) to hundreds of millions of years old (regolith dating to the Precambrian age occurs in parts of Australia).
On Earth, the presence of regolith is one of the important factors for most life, since few plants can grow on or within solid rock and animals would be unable to burrow or build shelter without loose material. Regolith is also important for human beings since it has been used since the dawn of civilization (in the form of mud bricks, concrete and ceramics) to build houses, roads, and other civil works.
The difference in terminology between “soil” (aka. dirt, mud, etc.) and “sand” is the presence of organic materials. In the former, it exists in abundance, and is what separates regolith on Earth from most other terrestrial environments in our Solar System.
The surface of the Moon is covered with a fine powdery material that scientists refer to it as “lunar regolith”. Nearly the entire lunar surface is covered with regolith, and bedrock is only visible on the walls of very steep craters.
The Moon regolith was formed over billions of years by constant meteorite impacts on the surface of the Moon. Scientists estimate that the lunar regolith extends down 4-5 meters in some places, and even as deep as 15 meters in the older highland areas.
When the plans were put together for the Apollo missions, some scientists were concerned that the lunar regolith would be too light and powdery to support the weight of the lunar lander. Instead of landing on the surface, they were worried that the lander would just sink down into it like a snowbank.
However, landings performed by robotic Surveyor spacecraft showed that the lunar soil was firm enough to support a spacecraft, and astronauts later explained that the surface of the Moon felt very firm beneath their feet. During the Apollo landings, the astronauts often found it necessary to use a hammer to drive a core sampling tool into it.
Once astronauts reached the surface, they reported that the fine moon dust stuck to their spacesuits and then dusted the inside of the lunar lander. The astronauts also claimed that it got into their eyes, making them red; and worse, even got into their lungs, giving them coughs. Lunar dust is very abrasive, and has been noted for its ability to wear down spacesuits and electronics.
The reason for this is because lunar regolith is sharp and jagged. This is due to the fact that the Moon has no atmosphere or flowing water on it, and hence no natural weathering process. When the micro-meteoroids slammed into the surface and created all the particles, there was no process for wearing down its sharp edges.
The term lunar soil is often used interchangeably with “lunar regolith”, but some have argued that the term “soil” is not correct because it is defined as having organic content. However, standard usage among lunar scientists tends to ignore that distinction. “Lunar dust” is also used, but mainly to refer to even finer materials than lunar soil.
As NASA is working on plans to send humans back to the Moon in the coming years, researchers are working to learn the best ways to work with the lunar regolith. Future colonists could mine minerals, water, and even oxygen out of the lunar soil, and use it to manufacture bases with as well.
Landers and rovers that have been sent to Mars by NASA, the Russians and the ESA have returned many interesting photographs, showing a landscape that is covered with vast expanses of sand and dust, as well as rocks and boulders.
Compared to lunar regolith, Mars dust is very fine and enough remains suspended in the atmosphere to give the sky a reddish hue. The dust is occasionally picked up in vast planet-wide dust storms, which are quite slow due to the very low density of the atmosphere.
The reason why Martian regolith is so much finer than that found on the Moon is attributed to the flowing water and river valleys that once covered its surface. Mars researchers are currently studying whether or not martian regolith is still being shaped in the present epoch as well.
It is believed that large quantities of water and carbon dioxide ices remain frozen within the regolith, which would be of use if and when manned missions (and even colonization efforts) take place in the coming decades.
Mars moon of Deimos is also covered by a layer of regolith that is estimated to be 50 meters (160 feet) thick. Images provided by the Viking 2 orbiter confirmed its presence from a height of 30 km (19 miles) above the moon’s surface.
Asteroids and Outer Solar System:
The only other planet in our Solar System that is known to have regolith is Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The surface is known for its extensive fields of dunes, though the precise origin of them are not known. Some scientists have suggested that they may be small fragments of water ice eroded by Titan’s liquid methane, or possibly particulate organic matter that formed in Titan’s atmosphere and rained down on the surface.
Another possibility is that a series of powerful wind reversals, which occur twice during a single Saturn year (30 Earth years), are responsible for forming these dunes, which measure several hundred meters high and stretch across hundreds of kilometers. Currently, Earth scientists are still not certain what Titan’s regolith is composed of.
Data returned by the Huygens Probe’s penetrometer indicated that the surface may be clay-like, but long-term analysis of the data has suggested that it may be composed of sand-like ice grains. The images taken by the probe upon landing on the moon’s surface show a flat plain covered in rounded pebbles, which may be made of water ice, and suggest the action of moving fluids on them.
Asteroids have been observed to have regolith on their surfaces as well. These are the result of meteoriod impacts that have taken place over the course of millions of years, pulverizing their surfaces and creating dust and tiny particles that are carried within the craters.
NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft produced evidence of regolith on the surface of the asteroid 433 Eros, which remains the best images of asteroid regolith to date. Additional evidence has been provided by JAXA’s Hayabusa mission, which returned clear images of regolith on an asteroid that was thought to be too small to hold onto it.
Images provided by the Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) cameras on board the Rosetta Spacecraft confirmed that the asteroid 21 Lutetia has a layer of regolith near its north pole, which was seen to flow in major landslides associated with variations in the asteriod’s albedo.
To break it down succinctly, wherever there is rock, there is likely to be regolith. Whether it is the product of wind or flowing water, or the presence of meteors impacting the surface, good old fashioned “dirt” can be found just about anywhere in our Solar System; and most likely, in the universe beyond…