Saturn Photobombs a Picture of the Martian Moon Phobos

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.

Phobos and background star (circled in red). Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

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.

This image of Deimos and Saturn was taken by the Super Resolution Channel of Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

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:

Further Reading: ESA

Colonizing the Inner Solar System

Colonizing The Inner Solar System


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.

NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, an Expedition 24 flight engineer in 2010, took a moment during her space station mission to enjoy an unmatched view of home through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station, the brilliant blue and white part of Earth glowing against the blackness of space. Credits: NASA
NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, an Expedition 24 flight engineer in 2010, took a moment during her space station mission to enjoy an unmatched view of home through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station, the brilliant blue and white part of Earth glowing against the blackness of space. Credits: NASA

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, as imaged by the MESSENGER spacecraft, revealing parts of the never seen by human eyes. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
Mercury, as imaged by the MESSENGER spacecraft, revealing parts of the never seen by human eyes. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

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.

Images of Mercury's northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL
Images of Mercury’s northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL

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 as photographed by the Pioneer spacecraft in 1978. Some exoplanets may suffer the same fate as this scorched world. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech
Venus as photographed by the Pioneer spacecraft in 1978. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

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.

Artist's concept of a Venus cloud city — a possible future outcome of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) plan. Credit: Advanced Concepts Lab at NASA Langley Research Center
Artist’s concept of a Venus cloud city — a possible future outcome of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) plan. Credit: Advanced Concepts Lab at NASA Langley Research Center

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.

Earth as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. Credits: NASA
Earth as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. Credits: NASA

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.

A 1969 station concept. The station was to rotate on its central axis to produce artificial gravity. The majority of early space station concepts created artificial gravity one way or another in order to simulate a more natural or familiar environment for the health of the astronauts. Credit: NASA
A 1969 station concept. The station was to rotate on its central axis to produce artificial gravity. The majority of early space station concepts created artificial gravity one way or another in order to simulate a more natural or familiar environment for the health of the astronauts. Credit: NASA

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.

Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA
Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA

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.

Here, a surface exploration crew begins its investigation of a typical, small lava tunnel, to determine if it could serve as a natural shelter for the habitation modules of a Lunar Base. Credit: NASA's Johnson Space Center
Here, a surface exploration crew begins its investigation of a typical, small lava tunnel, to determine if it could serve as a natural shelter for the habitation modules of a Lunar Base. Credit: NASA’s Johnson Space Center

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.

Artist's impression of a Near-Earth Asteroid passing by Earth. Credit: ESA
Artist’s impression of a Near-Earth Asteroid passing by Earth. Credit: ESA

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.

Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

The area depicted is Noctis Labyrinthus in the Valles Marineris system of enormous canyons. The scene is just after sunrise, and on the canyon floor four miles below, early morning clouds can be seen. The frost on the surface will melt very quickly as the Sun climbs higher in the Martian sky. Credit: NASA
The area depicted is Noctis Labyrinthus in the Valles Marineris system of enormous canyons. The scene is just after sunrise, and on the canyon floor four miles below, early morning clouds can be seen. The frost on the surface will melt very quickly as the Sun climbs higher in the Martian sky. Credit: NASA

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.

Two astronauts explore the rugged surface of Phobos. Mars, as it would appear to the human eye from Phobos, looms on the horizon. The mother ship, powered by solar energy, orbits Mars while two crew members inside remotely operate rovers on the Martian surface. The explorers have descended to the surface of Phobos in a small "excursion" vehicle, and they are navigating with the aid of a personal spacecraft, which fires a line into the soil to anchor the unit. The astronaut on the right is examining a large boulder; if the boulder weighed 1,000 pounds on Earth, it would weigh a mere pound in the nearly absent gravity field of Phobos. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings (SAIC)
Two astronauts explore the rugged surface of Phobos. Mars, as it would appear to the human eye from Phobos, looms on the horizon. The mother ship, powered by solar energy, orbits Mars while two crew members inside remotely operate rovers on the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings (SAIC)

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’ Moon Deimos

The Moons of Mars

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.

Phobos and Deimos, photographed here by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, are tiny, irregularly-shaped moons that are probably strays from the main asteroid belt. Credit: NASA - See more at: http://astrobob.areavoices.com/2013/07/05/rovers-capture-loony-moons-and-blue-sunsets-on-mars/#sthash.eMDpTVPT.dpuf
Phobos and Deimos, photographed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL

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.

HiRISE captured these enhanced-color images of Deimos, the smaller of the two moons of Mars, on 21 February 2009. Credit: NASA/JPL
Image of Deimos captured by HiRISE, showing the craters of Voltaire and Swift in the upper left corner. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Origin:

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.

Exploration:

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.

The planners behind the OSIRIS-REx mission have also proposed mounting a second mission that would return samples from Phobos and Deimos. And at the 2014 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, a proposal was made for a low-cost mission based on the Lunar Atmosphere Dust and Environment Explorer. It is named the Phobos and Deimos & Mars Environment (PADME) mission, and would involve an orbiter being sent to Mars by 2021.

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.

We have written many interesting articles about Mars’ moons here at Universe Today. Here’s How Many Moons Does Mars Have?, Phobos and Deimos – the Moons of Mars Explained, Phobos and Deimos Together at Last!, Moon Dance: Curiosity Rover Captures Movie of Phobos and Deimos Together and Opportunity sees Phobos and Deimos.

For more information, be sure to check out this Solar Views article on Deimos.

Astronomy Cast also has some relevant episodes on the subject – Episode 52: Mars, and Episode 91: The Search for Water on Mars.

Sources:

How Many Moons Does Mars Have?

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 dozens of moons.

Whereas Earth has only one satellite (aka. the Moon), Mars has two small moons: 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.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

The larger moon is Phobos, whose name comes from the Greek word which means “fear” (i.e. phobia). Phobos measures just 22.7 km across and has an orbit that places it closer to Mars than Deimos. Compared to Earth’s own Moon — which orbits at a distance of 384,403 km away from our planet — Phobos orbits at an average distance of only 9,377 km above Mars.

This produces an orbit of short duration, revolving around the planet three times in a single day. For someone standing on the planet’s surface, Phobos could be seen crossing the sky in only 4 hours or so.

Phobos, the larger of Mars' two moons, with the Stickney crater seen on the right side. Credit: HiRISE, MRO, LPL (U. Arizona), NASA
Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two moons, with the Stickney crater seen on the right side. Credit: HiRISE, MRO, LPL (U. Arizona), NASA

Mars’ second moon is Deimos, which takes its name from the Greek word for panic. It is even smaller, measuring just 12.6 km across, and is also less irregular in shape. Its orbit places it much farther away from Mars, at a distance of 23,460 km, which means that Deimos takes 30.35 hours to complete an orbit around Mars.

When impacted, dust and debris will leave the surface of the moon because they do not have enough gravitational pull to retain the ejecta. However, the gravity from Mars will keep a ring of this debris around the planet in approximately the same region that the moon orbits. As the moon revolves, the debris is redeposited as a dusty layer on its surface.

Like Earth’s Moon, Phobos and Deimos always present the same face to their planet. Both are lumpy, heavily-cratered and covered in dust and loose rocks. They are among the darker objects in the solar system. The moons appear to be made of carbon-rich rock mixed with ice. Given their composition, size and shape, astronomers think that both of Mars’ moons were once asteroids that were captured in the distant past.

However, it appears that of these two satellites, Phobos won’t be orbiting the Red Planet for very much longer. Because it orbits Mars faster than the planet itself rotates, it is slowly spiraling inward. As a result, scientists estimate that in the next 10-50 million years or so, it will get so low that the Martian gravity will tear Phobos into a pile of rocks. And then a few million years later, those rocks will crash down on the surface of Mars in a spectacular string of impacts.

The Martian Moon of Deimos, as pictured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: HiRISE/MRO/LPL (U. Arizona)/NASA
The Martian Moon of Deimos, as pictured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: HiRISE/MRO/LPL (U. Arizona)/NASA

Composition and Surface Features:

Phobos and Deimos both appear to be composed of C-type rock, similar to blackish carbonaceous chondrite asteroids. This family of asteroids is extremely old, dating back to the formation of the Solar System. Hence, it is likely that they were acquired by Mars very early in its history.

Phobos is heavily cratered from eons worth of impacts from meteors with three large craters dominating the surface. The largest crater is Stickney (visible in the photo above). The Stickney crater is 10 km in diameter, which is almost half of the average diameter of Phobos itself. The crater is so large that scientists believe the impact came close to breaking the moon apart. Parallel grooves and striations leading away from the crater indicate that fractures were likely formed as a result of the impact.

Much like Phobos, it’s surface is pockmarked and cratered from numerous impact. The largest crater on Deimos is approximately 2.3 km in diameter (1/5 the size of the Stickney crater). Although both moons are heavily cratered, Deimos has a smoother appearance caused by the partial filling of some of its craters.

Origin:

Compared to our Moon, Phobos and Deimos are rough and asteroid-like in appearance, and also much smaller. In addition, their composition (as already noted) is similar to that of C-type asteroids that are common to the Asteroid Belt. Hence, the prevailing theory as to their origin is that they were once asteroids that were kicked out of the Main Belt by Jupiter’s gravity, and were then acquired by Mars.

 

History of Observation:

Phobos and Deimos were originally discovered by American astronomer Asaph Hall in August of 1877. Ninety-four years after the moons’ discovery, NASA’s Mariner 9 spacecraft got a much better look at the two moons from its orbit around Mars. Upon viewing the large crater on Phobos, NASA decided to name it after Hall’s wife – Stickney. Subsequent observations conducted by the HiRISE experiment, the Mars Global Surveyor, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have added to our overall understanding of these two satellites.

Someday, manned missions may be going to Phobos and Deimos. Scientists have discussed the possibility of using one of the Martian moons as a base from which astronauts could observe the Red Planet and launch robots to its surface, while shielded by miles of rock from cosmic rays and solar radiation for nearly two-thirds of every orbit.

Here’s an article about how Phobos is going to crash into Mars in the future. And here are some great images of both Phobos and Deimos.

Here’s NASA’s fact sheet on Mars, including information about the moons, and additional info from Starry Skies.

Finally, if you’d like to learn more about Mars in general, we have done several podcast episodes about the Red Planet at Astronomy Cast. Episode 52: Mars, and Episode 91: The Search for Water on Mars.

Sources:

Weekly Space Hangout – Nov. 13, 2015: Daniel Stern, Project Scientist on NuSTAR

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest: Daniel Stern, Project Scientist on NuSTAR.

Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier )
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – Nov. 13, 2015: Daniel Stern, Project Scientist on NuSTAR”

What is Lunar Regolith?

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.

Definition:

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).

Earth:

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.

central Yilgarn Craton, Western Australia.
Picture of Mt Magnet in the Central Yilgarn Craton in Western Australia, which dates to the Precambrian Era. Credit: geomorphologie.revues.org

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 Moon:

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.

Earth viewed from the Moon by the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Credit: NASA
Earth viewed from the Moon by the Apollo 11 spacecraft, across a sea of lunar soil. Credit: NASA

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.

Alan Bean Takes Lunar Soil Sample
Alan Bean takes a sample of lunar regolith during the Apollo 12 mission. Credit: NASA

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.

Mars:

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.

A successful scoop of Martian regolith (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute)
A successful scoop of Martian regolith performed by NASA’s Phoenix lander. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute

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.

False color picture of Eros' 5.3-kilometer (3.3-mile) surface crater, showing regolith inside. Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL
False color picture taken by NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker camera of Eros’ 5.3-kilometer (3.3-mile) surface crater, showing the presence of regolith inside. Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL

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…

We’ve done several articles about the Moon’s regolith here on Universe Today. Here’s a way astronauts might be able to extract water from lunar regolith with simple kitchen appliances, and an article about NASA’s search for a lunar digger.

Want to buy some lunar regolith simulant? Here’s a site that lets you buy it. Do you want to be a Moon miner? There’s lots of good metal in that lunar regolith.

You can listen to a very interesting podcast about the formation of the Moon from Astronomy Cast, Episode 17: Where Did the Moon Come From?

Reference:
NASA

Curiosity Rover Snaps Photos of Comet Siding Spring, Giant Sunspot and Mars-shine

NASA’s Curiosity Rover spends most of its time staring at the ground, but like humans, it looks up once in a while too. As reported earlier, NASA ground controllers pointed the rover’s Mast Camera (mastcam) skyward to shoot a series of photos of Comet Siding Spring when it passed closest to the Red Planet on October 19th.  Until recently, noise-speckled pictures available on the raw image site confounded interpretation. Was the comet there or wasn’t it?  In these recently released versions, the fuzzy intruder is plain to see, tracking from right to left across the field of view. 

Remember the monster sunspot group on bold display during last month's partial solar eclipse. It was the largest group of the current solar cycle. Here it is again - returning for a second time - as seen by Curiosity on November 10th. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Remember the monster sunspot group on bold display during last month’s partial solar eclipse? It was the largest group of the current solar cycle and largest recorded in 24 years. Here it is again (lower left) – returning for a second time – as seen by Curiosity on November 10th. Click for raw version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ten exposures of 25 seconds each were taken between 4:33 p.m. and 5:54 p.m. CDT on October 19th to create the animation.  The few specks you see are electronic noise, but the sharp, bright streaks are stars that trailed during the time exposure. Curiosity’s Mastcam camera system has dual lenses –  a 100mm f/10 lens with a 5.1° square field of view and a 34mm, f/8 lens with a 15° square field of view. NASA didn’t include the information about which camera was used to make the photos, but if I had to guess, the faster, wide-angle view would be my choice. Siding Spring was moving relatively quickly across the Martian sky at closest approach.

Sunspot region 2192 (lower left) has returned for an encore in this photo taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. The same group is visible in images taken 4 days earlier from Mars. Credit: NASA/SDO
Sunspot region 2192 (lower left) has returned for an encore in this photo taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The same group is visible in images taken 4 days earlier from Mars. Credit: NASA/SDO

Prowling through the Curiosity raw image files, I came across this photo of the Sun on November 10th. Three dark spots at the left are immediately obvious and a dead-ringer for Active Region 2192, now re-named 2209 as it rounds the Sun for Act II.  You’ll recall this was the sunspot group that nearly stole the show during the October 23rd partial solar eclipse. From Mars’ perspective, which currently allows Curiosity to see further around the solar “backside”, AR 2209 showed up a few days before it was visible from Earth.

Mars Earth line of sight nov 10 final V2
Because of Mars’ position relative to the Sun, Curiosity saw the return of sunspot group 2192 before it was visible from Earth. The Sun had to rotate about another 4 days to carry the group into Earth’s line of sight. Source: Solarsystemscope with additions by the author

Although it’s slimmed down in size, the region is still large enough to view with the naked eye through a safe solar filter. More importantly, it possesses a complex beta-gamma-delta magnetic field where magnetic north and south poles are in close proximity and ripe for reconnection and production of M-class and X-class flares. Already, the region’s crackled with three moderate M-class flares over the past two days. In no mood to take a back seat, AR 2209 continues to dominate solar activity even during round two.

Phobos is very small but big enough for someone on the surface to see its shape with the naked eye, especially when the moon is high in the sky and closest to the observer. Then, it spans 1/3 the diameter of our Moon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Phobos is very small but orbits close enough for someone on the surface to see its shape with the naked eye, especially when it’s high in the sky and closest to the observer. Phobos is about 1/3 the size of our Moon. This photo was taken by Curiosity on October 20th and shows the moon’s largest crater, Stickney, at top.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech with toning by the author to bring out details

Mars possesses two small moons, Deimos and Phobos. Curiosity has photographed them both before including an occultation Deimos (9 miles/15 km) by the larger Phobos (13.5 miles/22 km). Phobos orbits closer to Mars than any other moon does to its primary in the Solar System, just 3,700 miles (6,000 km). As a result, it moves too fast for Mars’ rotation to overtake it the way Earth’s rotation overtakes the slower-moving Moon, causing it to set in the west overnight. Contrarian Phobos rises in the western sky and sets in the east just 4 hours 15 minutes later. When nearest the horizon and farthest from an observer, it’s apparent size is just 0.14º. At the zenith it grows to 0.20º of 1/3 the diameter of the Moon.

Phobos occults Deimos in real time photographed by the Curiosity Rover on August 1, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Phobos occults Deimos in real time photographed by the Curiosity Rover on August 1, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

One longish observing session on the planet would cover a complete rise-set cycle during which Phobos would first appear as a crescent and finish up a full moon a few hours later. All this talk about Phobos is only meant to direct you to the picture above taken by Curiosity on October 20, 2014 when the moon was a thick crescent. As on Earth, where Earthshine fills out the remainder of the crescent Moon, so too does Mars-shine provide enough illumination to see the full outline of Phobos.

Four-wheel drive only. Curiosity took this photo showing a sea of dark dune from the Pahrump Hills outcrop on November 13th. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Four-wheel drive only! Curiosity took this photo showing a sea of dark dunes from the Pahrump Hills outcrop on November 13th. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity has also photographed Earth, sunsets and transits of Phobos across the Sun while rambling across the dusty red landscape since August 2012. Before we depart, it seems only fair to aim our gaze Mars-ward again to see what’s up. Or down. The rover’s been doing a geological “Walkabout” in the Pahrump Hills outcrop at the base of Mt. Sharp in Gale Crater since September. Earlier this fall it drilled and sampled rock there containing more hematite than at any of its previous stops. Hematite is an iron oxide that’s often associated with water.

The mission may spend weeks or months at the outcrop looking for and drilling new target rocks before moving further up the geological layer cake better known as Mt. Sharp.

Making the Case for a Mission to the Martian Moon Phobos

Ask any space enthusiast, and almost anyone will say humankind’s ultimate destination is Mars. But NASA is currently gearing up to go to an asteroid. While the space agency says its Asteroid Initiative will help in the eventual goal of putting people on Mars, what if instead of going to an asteroid, we went to Mars’ moon Phobos?

Three prominent planetary scientists have joined forces in a new paper in the journal Planetary and Space Science to explain the case for a mission to the moons of Mars, particularly Phobos.

“Phobos occupies a unique position physically, scientifically, and programmatically on the road to exploration of the solar system,” say the scientists. In addition, the moons may possibly be a source of in situ resources that could support future human exploration in circum-Mars space or on the Martian surface. But a sample return mission first could provide details on the moons’ origins and makeup.

The Martian moons are riddles, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Phobos and its sibling Deimos seem like just two asteroids which were captured by the planet Mars, and they remain the last objects of the inner solar system not yet studied with a dedicated mission. But should the moons be explored with flybys or sample-return? Should we consider “boots or bots”?

The publications and mission concepts for Phobos and Deimos are numerous and go back decades. The authors of “The Value of a Phobos Sample Return,” Murchie, Britt, and Pieters, explore the full breadth of questions of why and how to explore Phobos and Deimos.

Dr. Murchie is the principal investigator of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s CRISM instrument, a visible/infrared imaging spectrometer. He is a planetary scientist from John Hopkins’ Applied Physics Lab (APL) which has been at the forefront of efforts to develop a Phobos mission. Likewise, authors Dr. Britt, from the University of Central Florida, and Dr. Pieters, from Brown University, have partnered with APL and JPL in Phobos/Deimos mission proposals.

A MRO HiRise image of the Martian moon Phobos. Taken on March 23, 2008. Phobos has dimensions of 27 × 22 × 18 km, while Deimos is 15 × 12.2 × 11 km. Both were discovered in 1877 at the US Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. (Photo: NASA/MRO/HiRISE)
An MRO HiRise image of the Martian moon Phobos. Taken on March 23, 2008. Phobos has dimensions of 27 × 22 × 18 km, while Deimos is 15 × 12.2 × 11 km. Both were discovered in 1877 at the US Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. (Photo: NASA/MRO/HiRISE)

APL scientists are not the only ones interested in Phobos or Deimos. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute have also proposed several missions to the small moons. Every NASA center has been involved at some level.

But the only mission to actually get off the ground is the Russian Space Agency’s Phobos-GRUNT[ref]. The Russian mission was launched November 9, 2011, and two months later took a bath in the Pacific Ocean. The propulsion system failed to execute the burns necessary to escape the Earth’s gravity and instead, its orbit decayed despite weeks of attempts to activate the spacecraft. But that’s a whole other story.

The Russian-led mission Phobos-Grunt did not end well; under Pacific swells to be exact. Undaunted Russian scientists are pressing for Phobos-Grunt 2. (Credit: CNES)
The Russian-led mission Phobos-Grunt did not end well; under Pacific swells to be exact. Undaunted Russian scientists are pressing for Phobos-Grunt 2 (illus.), an improved lander with sample-return. Proposed for 2020s (Credit: CNES)

“The Value of a Phobos Sample Return” first discusses the origins of the moons of Mars. There is no certainty. There is a strong consensus that Earth’s Moon was born from the collision of a Mars-sized object with Earth not long after Earth’s formation. This is just one possibility for the Martian moons. Murchie explains that the impacts that created the large basins and craters on Mars could have spawned Phobos and Deimos: ejecta that achieved orbit, formed a ring and then coalesced into the small bodies. Alternative theories claim that the moons were captured by Mars from either the inner or outer solar system. Or they could have co-accreted with Mars from the Solar Nebula. Murchie and the co-authors describe the difficulties and implications of each scenario. For example, if captured by Mars, then it is difficult to explain how their orbits came to be “near-circular and near-equatorial with synchronous rotational periods.”

To answer the question of origins, the paper turns to the questions of their nature. Murchie explains that the limited compositional knowledge leaves several possibilities for their origins. They seem like D-type asteroids of the outer asteroid belt. However, the moons of Mars are very dry, void of water, at least on their surfaces as the paper discusses in detail. The flybys of Phobos and Deimos by NASA and ESA spacecraft are simply insufficient for drawing any clear picture of their composition or structure, let alone their origins, Murchie and co-authors explain.

If the moons were captured then they have compositions different from Mars; however if they accreted with or from Mars, then they share similar compositions with the early Mars when forming, or from Martian crustal material, respectively.

The paper describes in some detail the problem that billions of years of Martian dust accumulation presents. Every time Mars has been hit by a large asteroid, a cloud of debris is launched into space. Some falls back to the planet but much ends up in orbit. Each time, some of the debris collided with Phobos and Deimos; Murchie uses the term “Witness plate” to describe what the two moons are to Mars. There is an accumulation of Martian material and also material from the impactors covering the surfaces of the moons.  Flyby images of Phobos show a reddish surface similar to Mars, and numerous tracks along the surface as if passing objects struck, plowed or rolled along. However, the reddish hue could be weathering from Solar flux over billions of years.

The paper continues with questions of the composition and how rendezvous missions could go further to understanding the moons makeup and origins, however, it is sample return that would deliver, the pay dirt. Despite how well NASA and ESA engineers have worked to shrink and lighten the instruments that fly, orbit, and land on Mars, returning a sample of Phobos to labs on Earth would permit far more detailed analysis.

SpaceX and Elon Musk claim that they will mount human flight to Mars before 2030. Many others remain less optimistic with hopes to human flights before 2040. (Illustrations: Total Recall, 1990, early artist illustration c.1950s )
SpaceX and Elon Musk claim that they will mount human flight to Mars before 2030. Many others remain less optimistic with hopes of human flights before 2040. (Illustrations: Total Recall, 1990, early artist illustration c.1950s )

Science Fiction writers and mission designers have imagined Phobos, in particular, as a starting point for the human exploration and colonization of Mars. A notable contemporary work is “Red Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson; however, the story line is dated due to the retirement of the Space Shuttle and the external tanks Robinson clustered to form the colonization vessel. While this paper by Murchie et al. is purely scientific, fiction writers have used the understanding that Phobos is far easier to reach from Earth than is the surface of Mars (see Delta-V chart below).

A diagram showing the stair-step energy needed to travel to places beyond the Earth. Delta-V is the velocity in km/sec to reach a destination. The Delta-Vs a accumulative. (Credit: Wikipedia, Delta-V)
A diagram showing the stair-step energy needed to travel to places beyond the Earth. Delta-V is the speed in km/sec required to reach a destination. As shown, the Delta-Vs are cumulative. Note that it takes an extra 5 km/sec  beyond Phobos to reach the Martian surface; a prime reason for making the journey to the moons of Mars. (Credit: Wikipedia, Delta-V)

Phobos, orbiting at 9,400 kilometers (5,840 miles), and Deimos, at 23,500 km (14,600 miles), above Mars avoids the need for the 7-odd minutes of EDL terror – Entry, Descent, and Landing — and pulling oneself out of the Martian gravity well to return to Earth. Furthermore, there is the interest in using Phobos as a material resource – water, material for rocket fuel or building materials. “The Value of a Phobos Sample Return” discusses the potential of Phobos as a resource for space travelers – “In Situ Resource Utilization” (ISRU), in the context of its composition, how the solar flux may have purged the moons of water or how Martian impact debris covers materials of greater interest and value to explorers.

With so many questions and interests, what missions have been proposed and explored? The Murchie paper describes a half dozen missions but there are several others that have been conceived and proposed to some level over several decades.

At present, there is at least one mission actively pursuing funds. The SETI and Ames proposed “Phobos and Deimos & Mars Environment” (PADME) mission led by Dr. Pascal Lee is competing for Discovery program funding. Such projects must limit cost to $425 million or less and be capable of launching in less than 3 years. They are proposing a launch date of 2018 on a SpaceX Falcon 9. The PADME mission design would reuse Ames LADEE hardware and expertise, however, it does not go so far as what Murchie and co-authors argue – returning a sample from Phobos. PADME would maintain in a synchronized orbit with Phobos and then Deimos foe repeated flybys. The mission is likely to cost in the range of $300 million. Stardust, a relevant mission due to its sample return capsule, launched in 1999 and had costs which likely reached a similar level by end of mission in 2012.

The Russian Space Agency is attempting to gain funding for Phobos-Grunt 2 but possible launch dates continue to be moved back – 2020, 2022, and now possibly 2024.

Return of the Stardust sample inside the Lockheed-Martin developed sample-return capsule. See here upon successful landing in the Utah desert. (Credit: NASA/Stardust)
Return of the Stardust sample inside the Lockheed-Martin developed sample-return capsule. Seen here upon successful landing in the Utah desert. (Credit: NASA/Stardust)

Additionally, each of this papers’ authors has mission proposals described. Dr. Pieters, JPL, and Lockheed-Martin proposed the Aladdin mission; Dr. Britt at APL, also with Lockheed-Martin, proposed the mission Gulliver; both would re-use the Stardust sample-return capsule (photo, above). Dr. Murchie also describes his APL/JPL mission concept called MERLIN (Mars–Moon Exploration, Reconnaissance and Landed Investigation).

Phobos and Deimos are the last two of what one would call major objects of the inner Solar System that have not had dedicated missions of exploration. Several bodies of the Asteroid Belt have been targeted with flybys and Dawn is nearing its second target, the largest of the Asteroids, Ceres.

So sooner rather than later, a spacecraft from some nation (not necessarily the United States) will target the moons of Mars. Targeted Phobos/Deimos missions are also likely to include both flyby missions and one or more sample-return missions. A US-led mission with sample-return in the Discovery program will be strained to meet both criteria – $425 million cost cap and 3 year development period.

Those utilizing the Lockheed-Martin (LM) Stardust design have a proven return capsule and spacecraft buses (structure, mechanisms and avionics) for re-use for cost and time savings. This includes five generations of the LM flight software that holds an incredible legacy of mission successes starting with Mars Odyssey/Genesis/Spitzer to now Maven.

All three proposals by this paper’s authors could be re-vamped and proposed again and compete against each other. All three could use Lockheed-Martin past designs. Cooperation in writing this paper may be an indicator that they will join forces, combine concepts, and share investigator positions on a single NASA-led project. The struggle for federal dollars remains a tough, tight battle and with the human spaceflight program struggling to gain a new footing after Space Shuttle, dollars for inter-planetary missions are likely to remain very competitive. However, it appears a Phobos-Deimos mission is likely within the next ten years.

Further reading:

“The Value of a Phobos Sample Return”, Scott L. Murchie, Daniel T. Britt, Carle M. Pieters, Planetary and Space Science, 1 November 2014

The US Naval Observatory, Great 26″ Refractor Telescope

Past Universe Today story, “Finding Phobos: Discovery of a Martian Moon”

Infographic: Sci-Fi Books That Predicted The Future

A moon rocket thundering from a pad in Florida. Two moons discovered around Mars. Space tourism. These are all things that are part of history today — and which were also predicted in literature years or decades before the event actually happened.

This fun infographic (embedded below) shows a series of fiction books that were curiously prescient about our future, ranging from From The Earth to the Moon to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Submarines, rocket ships and other pieces of technology were all imagined long before they were reality, so what inspired these authors?

“Many writers of the past have predicted the facts of our present society with a level of detail that seems impossibly accurate,” wrote Printerinks, a print and toner shop that produced the graphic.

“Some of them were even derided in their times for what were called outlandish and unbelievable fictions. Yet their imaginations were in reality painting portraits that would eventually be mirrored by history books a century later. Which seems to beg the question, Where does inspiration come from? So to decide for yourself whether these writers were seers or just plain lucky, explore our History of Books that Predicted the Future.”

You can click on the graphic for a larger version. Is it missing anything? Let us know in the comments.

(h/t It’s Okay To Be Smart)

History of Books that Forecast the Future Infographic