How Many Moons Does Mars Have?

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:

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.

Continue reading “How Many Moons Does Mars Have?”

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

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest: Daniel Stern, Project Scientist on NuSTAR.

Morgan Rehnberg ( / @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?

A boot print on the lunar regolith. Credit: NASA.

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.

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

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.


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?


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

It's not much, but it's the clearest view taken by NASA's Curiosity Rover of C/2013 A1 Siding Spring as it passed near Mars on October 19th. The comet is the fuzzy streak moving from right to left. Click for a full-sized view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/TAMU

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

Phobos. From where did it arise or arrive? Is it dry or wet? Should we flyby or sample and return? Should it be Boots or Bots? (Photos: NASA, Illus.:T.Reyes)

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

The Saturn V rocket bearing Apollo 11 lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center on July 20, 1969. Credit: NASA

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

Videopalooza Shows Off Phobos Flyby As Moon’s Mysterious Origins Probed

There won’t be any pictures out of this close encounter, but the animations sure were spectacular. The European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft skimmed just 45 kilometers (28 miles) above the surface of the moon Phobos yesterday, and through these various videos you can see what the orbital trajectory would have looked like during that time.

“The flyby on 29 December will be so close and fast that Mars Express will not be able to take any images, but instead it will yield the most accurate details yet of the moon’s gravitational field and, in turn, provide new details of its internal structure,” ESA wrote in a press release last week.

“As the spacecraft passes close to Phobos, it will be pulled slightly off course by the moon’s gravity, changing the spacecraft’s velocity by no more than a few centimetres per second. These small deviations will be reflected in the spacecraft’s radio signals as they are beamed back to Earth, and scientists can then translate them into measurements of the mass and density structure inside the moon.”

The goal is to learn more about the structure of Phobos with the aim of figuring out where the moon came from. There are competing theories about the origin of Phobos and the other Martian moon, Deimos. Perhaps they were captured asteroids, or perhaps they were made up of debris made up from huge collisions from the Martian surface.

“Earlier flybys, including the previous closest approach of 67 km in March 2010, have already suggested that the moon could be between a quarter and a third empty space – essentially a rubble pile with large spaces between the rocky blocks that make up the moon’s interior,” ESA added.

Check out the rest of the videos below.

Source: ESA

Curiosity Spies a Martian Annular Eclipse

Phobos transiting the Sun as seen by the Mars Curiosity rover on Sol 369. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems/Texas A & M University).

It’s always interesting to consider the astronomical goings-on that occur under alien skies.

On August 17th, Curiosity wowed us once again, catching the above sequence of images of the Martian moon Phobos transiting the Sun.

Such phenomena have been captured by the Curiosity, Opportunity and Spirit rovers before, as the twin Martian moons of Deimos & Phobos cross the face of the Sun. But these recent images taken by Curiosity’s right Mastcam pair are some of the sharpest yet.

Orbiting only an average of 6,000 kilometres above the surface of Mars, Phobos is the closest to its primary of any moon in the solar system. It appears about 11 arc minutes in size when directly overhead, about 3 times smaller than our own Moon does from the Earth.

“This event occurred near noon at Curiosity’s location, which put Phobos at its closest point to the rover, appearing larger against the Sun than it would at other times of the day,” Said co-investigator Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University in a recent press release. “This is the closest to a total eclipse that you can have on Mars.”

Phobos is 40% more distant from an observer standing on the surface of Mars when it is rising above the local horizon than when it is overhead. The Sun is about 20’ arc minutes across as seen from Mars, 66% of its diameter as seen from the Earth.

The sequence above spans only six seconds in duration. You would easily note the apparent motion of Phobos as it drifted by! Also, since Phobos orbits Mars once every 7.7 hours, it actually rises in the west and sets in the east. The Martian day is over three times this span, at 24.6 hours long. Deimos has a more sedate orbit of 30.4 hours in duration.

The twin Moons of Deimos and Phobos were discovered this month back during the opposition of 1877 by Asaph Hall using the United States Naval Observatory’s newly installed 65 centimetre refractor. The moons are just within the grasp of eagle-eyed amateurs near opposition. You’ve got another opportunity to cross these elusive moons off of your life list coming up in the Spring of 2014.

The telescope that was used to discover the moons of Mars. (Credit: The United States Naval Observatory).

It’s especially captivating that you can make out the irregular “potato shape” of Phobos in the above images. With low orbital inclinations relative to the equator of Mars of 1.1 degrees for Phobos and 0.9 degrees for Deimos, solar transits are not an uncommon occurrence, transpiring somewhere along the Martian surface with every orbit. If Phobos were twice as close to Mars, it would completely cover the Sun in a total solar eclipse. What Curiosity gave us this month is more akin to an annular eclipse with a ragged central shadow. An annular eclipse occurs when the occulting body is too distant to cover the Sun, leaving a bright, shining ring, or annulus.

On the Earth, we live in an epoch where annular eclipses are slightly more common than total solar eclipses, as the Moon currently recedes from us to the tune of 3.8 centimetres a year. About 1.4 billion years from now, the last total solar eclipse will be seen from the Earth. The next purely annular eclipse as seen from Earth occurs on April 29th, 2014 across Australia and the Antarctic.

Conversely, Phobos is in a “death spiral,” meaning that it will one day crash into Mars about 30-50 million years from now. This also means that in about half that time, it will also be large enough to visually cover the Sun when crossing it near local noon.  For a brief time far in the future, jagged total solar eclipses will be visible from Mars. That is, if the gravitational field of Mars doesn’t rip Phobos apart before that!

But beyond just aesthetics, these observations serve a scientific purpose as well. These phenomena serve to refine our understanding of the precise positions of Phobos and Deimos and their orbits.

“This one is by far the most detailed image of any Martian lunar transit ever taken, and it is especially useful because it is annular. It was taken closer to the Sun’s center than predicted, so we learned something.”

The track during the August 17th observation was off by about 2-3 kilometres, allowing for a surprise central transit of the Sun as seen from Curiosity’s location.

Both Phobos and Deimos are captured asteroids only 22.2 & 12.6 kilometres across, respectively. Both must be subject to occasional bombardment from meteorites blasted off of the surface of nearby Mars. Sample return missions to Phobos have been proposed. Russia’s ill-fated Phobos-Grunt mission would’ve done just that.

Will humans ever stand on the surface of the Red Planet and witness an annular eclipse of the Sun by Phobos in person? Well, if we make it there by November 10th, 2084, observers placed on the slopes of Elysium Mons will witness just such an event… with a rare transit of Earth and the Moon to boot!:

Arthur C. Clarke wrote of a transit of Earth from Mars that occurred in 1984 in his science fiction short story Transit of Earth.

Hey, I’m marking my calendar for the 2084 event… assuming, of course, my android body is ready by then!

Finding Phobos: Discovery of a Martian Moon

Phobos, one of the two natural satellites of Mars silhouetted against the Martian surface. Credit: ISRO

Mars Express images of Phobos from January 9, 2011 flyby

If someone were to ask you when fear was first discovered, you could tell them August 11, 1877. That’s when, 134 years ago today, Asaph Hall identified Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two moons. But even though it’s named after the Greek god of fear, there’s nothing to be afraid of…

Continue reading “Finding Phobos: Discovery of a Martian Moon”