NASA Orders Up a Double Shot of Venus Missions Amid Questions About Life

Venus' surface features are revealed in an image based on data from NASA's Magellan spacecraft and Pioneer Venus Orbiter. (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s planetary science program is making a big bet on Venus, after decades of putting its chips on Mars in the search for hints of past or present life out there in the solar system.

The bet comes in the form of a double dose of development funding for Discovery Program missions, amounting to as much as $1 billion. Both DAVINCI+ and VERITAS were selected from a field of four finalists in a competitive process — leaving behind missions aimed at studying Jupiter’s moon Io and Neptune’s moon Triton.

“These two sister missions are both aimed to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world capable of melting lead at the surface,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said June 2 in his first “State of NASA” address. “They will offer the entire science community the chance to investigate a planet we haven’t been to in more than 30 years.”

Lessons from Venus, which underwent a runaway greenhouse effect early in its existence, could improve scientists’ understanding of our own planet’s changing climate. The missions could also address one of the biggest questions about the second rock from the Sun: whether life could exist in the upper reaches of its cloud layer.

Continue reading “NASA Orders Up a Double Shot of Venus Missions Amid Questions About Life”

More Details On NASA’s VERITAS Mission, Which Could Go to Venus

Venus has always been a bit of the odd stepchild in the solar system.  It’s similarities to Earth are uncanny: roughly the same size, mass, and distance from the sun.  But the development paths the two planets ended up taking were very different, with one being the birthplace of all life as we know it, and the other becoming a cloud-covered, highly pressurized version of hell.  That cloud cover, which is partially made up of sulfuric acid, has also given the planet an air of mystery. So much so that astronomers in the early 20th century speculated that there could be dinosaurs roaming about on the surface.

Some of that mystery will melt away if a team from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory gets a chance to launch their newest idea for a mission to the planet, the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topograph, and Spectroscopy (or VERITAS) mission.

Continue reading “More Details On NASA’s VERITAS Mission, Which Could Go to Venus”

NASA Announces Missions to Explore Early Solar System

An artist’s conception of the Lucy spacecraft (left) flying by the Trojan Eurybates, and Psyche (Right) Psyche, the first mission to the metal world 16 Psyche. Credits: SwRI and SSL/Peter Rubin

It’s a New Year, with new challenges and new opportunities! And NASA, looking to kick things off, has announced the two new missions that will be launching in the coming decade. These robotic missions, named Lucy and Psyche, are intended to help us understand the history of the early Solar System, and will deploy starting in 2021 and 2023, respectively.

While Lucy’s mission is to explore one of Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, Psyche will explore a metal asteroid known as 16 Psyche. And between the two of them, it is hoped that they will answer some enduring questions about planetary formation and how the Solar System came to be. More than that, these mission represent historic firsts for NASA and human space exploration.

NASA’s Discovery Program, of which Lucy and Psyche are part, was created in 1992 to compliment their larger “flagship” programs. By bringing scientists and engineers together to design missions, the Discovery Program’s focus has been to maximize scientific research by creating many smaller missions that have shorter development periods and require less in the way of operational resources.

Artist’s concept of the Lucy spacecraft flying by Eurybates, one of the six diverse and scientifically important Trojans it will study. Credit: SwRI

The Lucy mission is scheduled to launch in October of 2021, and is expected to arrive at its first destination (a Main Belt asteroid) in 2025. It will then set course for Jupiter’s Trojans, a group of asteroids that are trapped by Jupiter’s gravity and share its orbit. These asteroids are thought to be relics of the early Solar System; and between 2027 and 2033, Lucy will study six of them.

In addition to being the first mission to explore Jupiter’s Trojan population, Lucy is also of historic importance because of the number of asteroids it will visit. Throughout the course of its mission, it is will investigate six Trojans, which is the total number of Main Belt asteroids that have been studied to date. The nature of these six asteroids is also expected to tell us much about the early history of the Solar System.

As Harold F. Levison – the principal investigator of the Lucy mission from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado – explained during a NASA call-in briefing:

“One of the surprising aspects of this population is their diversity. If we look at them through telescopes on the Earth, we see that they are very different from one other in their color, in their spectra. And so, we believe that’s telling us something about how the Solar System formed and evolved… This diversity in these objects, we believe, are due to the fact that they actually formed in very different regions of the Solar System, with very different physical characteristics. And something occurred in the history of the Solar System where these objects started off at very different distances, but during the formation and evolution of the Solar System, they got moved around and placed in these stable reservoirs near Jupiter’s orbit.”

Illustration of the Lucy spacecraft’s orbit around Jupiter, which will allow it to study its Trojan population. Credit: SwRI

The six Trojans that Lucy is intended investigate were selected because the diversity of their physical characteristics show that they are from different locations throughout the Solar System. As Levison put it, “These small bodies really are the fossils of planet formation, and that’s why we named Lucy after the human ancestor known as Lucy.”

In addition, Lucy will build on the success of missions like New Horizons and OSIRIS-REx., which includes using updated versions of instruments they used to explore Pluto, the Kuiper Belt, and the asteroid Bennu -i.e. the RALPH and LORRI instruments and the OTES instrument. In addition, several members of the New Horizons and OSIRIS-REx science teams will be lending their expertise to the Lucy mission.

Similarly, the Psyche mission will of be immense scientific value since it will visit the only metal asteroid known to exist. This asteroid measures about 210 km (130 mi) in diameter and is believed to be composed entirely of iron and nickel. In this respect, it is similar to Earth’s metallic core, as well as the cores of every terrestrial planet in the Solar System.

It is for this reason why scientists believe it may be the exposed core of a Mars-sized planet. According to this theory, 16 Psyche experienced several major collisions during the early history of the Solar System, which caused it to shed its rocky mantle. The robotic probe will launch in 2023 and is expected to arrive by 2030 – after receiving an Earth gravity-assist maneuver in 2024 and a Mars flyby in 2025.

By measuring its composition, magnetic field, and mapping its surface features, Lucy’s science team hopes to learn more about the history of planetary formation. As Lindy Elkins-Tanton – the Principal Investigator of Psyche and the Director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University – said during the NASA call-in briefing:

“Humankind has visited rocky worlds and icy worlds and worlds made of gas. But we have never seen a metal world. Psyche has never been visited or had a picture taken that was more than a point of light. And so, its appearance remains a mystery. This mission will be true exploration and discovery. We think that Psyche is the metal core of a small planet that was destroyed in the high-energy, high-speed, first one-one-hundredth of the age of our Solar System. By visiting Psyche we can literally visit a planetary core the only way humanity can… Psyche let’s us visit inner space by visiting outer space.”

Not only are planetary cores thought to be where magnetic fields originate (which are necessary for the emergence of life), but they are entirely inaccessible to us. The very edge of Earth’s outer core is roughly 2,890 km (1790 mi) from our planet’s surface. But the deepest humanity has ever dug has been to a depth of 12 km (7.5 mi), which took place at the Kola Superdeep Borehole, in Russia.

In addition, within the Earth’s core, temperature and pressure conditions are estimated to reach 5700 K (5400 °C; 9752 °F) and 330 to 360 gigapascals (over three million times normal air pressure). This makes exploring the core of our planet (or any other planet in the Solar System, for that matter) completely impractical. Hence why a robotic mission to a world like Pysche is such an opportunity.

And since Psyche is the only rounded body of metal that is known to exist in the Solar System, the asteroid is as improbably as it is unique. And since no missions have ever taken place to explore its surface, and no pictures exist that can tell us what its surface features would look like, the Psyche mission is sure to shed some serious light on what a metal world looks like.

“What do we think it might look like?” asked Tanton. “Does it have surface sulfur lava flows on its surface? Is it covered with towering cliffs created when solidifying metal shrank and the exterior of the body broke into fault? Is its surface a combination of iron metal and green mineral crystal as iron meteorites are? And what does an impact crater in metal look like? Could its edges or its metal flashes become frozen in the cold of space before they fell back on the surface. We don’t know.”

Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Director, expressed enthusiasm for the Discovery 13 and 14 missions in a recent NASA press release:

“These are true missions of discovery that integrate into NASA’s larger strategy of investigating how the solar system formed and evolved. We’ve explored terrestrial planets, gas giants, and a range of other bodies orbiting the sun. Lucy will observe primitive remnants from farther out in the solar system, while Psyche will directly observe the interior of a planetary body. These additional pieces of the puzzle will help us understand how the sun and its family of planets formed, changed over time, and became places where life could develop and be sustained – and what the future may hold.”

Lucy and Psyche were chosen from five finalists that were selected for further development back in September 2015. These in turn were chosen from 27 mission concepts that were submitted back in November of 2014. Examples of past and present Discovery missions include the Kepler space probe, the Dawn spacecraft, the Mars Pathfinder, and the InSight lander (which is scheduled to launch in 2018).

Further Reading: NASA

Surveying the “Fossils of Planet Formation”: The Lucy Mission

Lucy, an SwRI mission proposal to study primitive asteroids orbiting near Jupiter, is one of five science investigations under the NASA Discovery Program up for possible funding. Credit:

In February of 2014, NASA’s Discovery Program put out the call for mission proposals, one or two of which will have the honor of taking part in Discovery Mission Thirteen. Hoping to focus the next round of exploration efforts to places other than Mars, the five semifinalists (which were announced this past September) include proposed missions to Venus, Near-Earth Objects, and asteroids.

When it comes to asteroid exploration, one of the possible contenders is Lucy – a proposed reconnaissance orbiter that would study Jupiter‘s Trojan Asteroids. In addition to being the first mission of its kind, examining the Trojans Asteroids could also lead to several scientific finds that will help us to better understand the history of the Solar System.

By definition, Trojan are populations of asteroids that share their orbit with other planets or moons, but do not collide with it because they orbit in one of the two Lagrangian points of stability. The most significant population of Trojans in the Solar System are Jupiter’s, with a total of 6,178 having been found as of January 2015. In accordance with astronomical conventions, objects found in this population are named after mythical figures from the Trojan War.

There are two main theories as to where Jupiter’s Trojans came from. The first suggests that they formed in the same part of the Solar System as Jupiter and were caught by the gas giant’s gravity as it accumulated hydrogen and helium from the protoplanetary disk. Since they would have shared the same approximate orbit as the forming gas giant, they would have been caught in its gravity and orbited it ever since.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons
The asteroids of the Inner Solar System and Jupiter. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The second theory, part of the Nice model, proposes that the Jupiter Trojans were captured about 500-600 million years after the Solar System’s formation. During this period Uranus, Neptune – and to a lesser extent, Saturn – moved outward, whereas Jupiter moved slightly inward. This migration could have destabilized the primordial Kuiper Belt, throwing millions of objects into the inner Solar System, some of which Jupiter then captured.

In either case, the presence of Trojan asteroids around Jupiter can be traced back to the early Solar System. Studying them therefore presents an opportunity to learn more about its history and formation. And if in fact the Trojans are migrant from the Kuiper Belt, it would also be a chance for scientists to learn more about the most distant reaches of the solar system without having to send a mission all the way out there.

The mission would be led by Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, with the Goddard Space Center managing the project. Its targets would most likely include asteroid (3548) Eurybates, (21900) 1999 VQ10, (11351) 1997 TS25, and the binary (617) Patroclus/Menoetius.  It would also visit a main-belt asteroid (1981 EQ5) on the way.

The spacecraft would perform scans of the asteroids and determine their geology, surface features, compositions, masses and densities using a sophisticated suite of remote-sensing and radio instruments. In addition, during it’s proposed 11-year mission, Lucy would also gather information on the asteroids thermal and other physical properties from close range.

Artit's concept of the Trojan asteroids. By sheer number, small bodies dominate our solar system — and NASA's latest Discovery competition. Credit: NASA artist's concept - See more at:
Artist’s concept of Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids hovering in the foreground in Jupiter’s path, with the “Greeks” at left in the background. Credit: NASA.

The project is named Lucy in honor of one of the most influential human fossils found on Earth. Discovered in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia in 1974, Lucy’s remains – several hundred bone fragments that belonged to a member the hominid species of Australopithecus afarensis – proved to be an extraordinary find that advanced our knowledge of hominid species evolution.

Levison and his team are hoping that a similar find can be made using the probe of the same name. As he and his colleagues describe it, the Lucy mission is aimed at “Surveying the diversity of Trojan asteroids: The fossils of planet formation.”

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Levinson. “Because the Trojan asteroids are remnants of that primordial material, they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system. These asteroids are in an area that really is the last population of objects in the solar system to be visited.”

The payload is expected to include three complementary imaging and mapping instruments, including a color imaging and infrared mapping spectrometer, a high-resolution visible imager, and a thermal infrared spectrometer. NASA has also offered an additional $5 to $30 million in funding if mission planners choose to incorporate a laser communications system, a 3D woven heat shield, a Deep Space atomic clock, and/or ion engines.

As one of the semifinalists, the Lucy mission has received $3 million dollars to conduct concept design studies and analyses over the course of the next year. After a detailed review and evaluation of the concept studies, NASA will make the final selections by September 2016. In the end, one or two missions will receive the mission’s budget of $450 million (not including launch vehicle funding or post-launch operations) and will be launched by 2020 at the earliest.

A Mission to a Metal World: The Psyche Mission

NASA Selects Investigations for Future Key Planetary Mission Artist's concept of the Psyche spacecraft, a proposed mission for NASA's Discovery program that would conduct a direct exploration of an object thought to be a stripped planetary core. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In their drive to set exploration goals for the future, NASA’s Discovery Program put out the call for proposals for their thirteenth Discovery mission in February 2014. After reviewing the 27 initial proposals, a panel of NASA and other scientists and engineers recently selected five semifinalists for additional research and development, one or two of which will be launching by the 2020s.

With an eye to Venus, near-Earth objects and asteroids, these missions are looking beyond Mars to address other questions about the history and formation of our Solar System. Among them is the proposed Psyche mission, a robotic spacecraft that will explore the metallic asteroid of the same name – 16 Psyche – in the hopes of shedding some light on the mysteries of planet formation.

Discovered by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis on March 17th, 1852 – and named after a Greek mythological figure – Psyche is one the ten most-massive asteroids in the Asteroid Belt. It is also the most massive M-type asteroid, a special class pertaining to asteroids composed primarily of nickel and iron.

For some time, scientists have speculated that this metallic asteroid is in fact the survivor of a protoplanet. In this scenario, a violent collision with a planetesimal stripped off Psyche’s outer, rocky layers, leaving behind only the dense, metallic interior. This theory is supported by estimates of Psyche’s bulk density, spectra, and radar surface properties; all of which show it to be an object unlike any others in the Belt.

Promotional artwork for the proposed Psyche mission. Credit: Peter Rubin/JPL-CALTECH.
Promotional artwork for the proposed Psyche mission. Credit: Peter Rubin/JPL-CALTECH.

In addition, this composition of 16 Psyche is strikingly similar to that of Earth’s metal core. Given that astronomers think that larger planets like Venus, Earth and Mars formed from the collision and merger of smaller worlds, Psyche could be the remains of a protoplanet that did not get to create a larger body.

Had such a planetesimal been struck by a large enough object, it would have been able to lose its lower-mass exterior while keeping its core intact. Thus, studying this 250 km (155 mile) wide body, offers a unique opportunity to learn more about the interiors of planets and large moons, whose cores are hidden beneath many miles of rock.

Dr. Linda Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration is the Principle Investigator of this mission. As she and her team stated in their mission proposal paper, which was originally submitted as part of the 45th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (2014):

“This mission would be a journey back in time to one of the earliest periods of planetary accretion, when the first bodies were not only differentiating, but were being pulverized, shredded, and accreted by collisions. It is also an exploration, by proxy, of the interiors of terrestrial planets and satellites today: we cannot visit a metallic core any other way.

“For all of these reasons, coupled with the relative accessibility to low- cost rendezvous and orbit, Psyche is a superb target for a Discovery-class mission that would characterize its geology, shape, elemental composition, magnetic field , and mass distribution.”

The huge metal asteroid Psyche may have a strong remnant magnetic field. Credit: Damir Gamulin/Ben Weiss
The huge metal asteroid Psyche may have a strong remnant magnetic field. Credit: Damir Gamulin/Ben Weiss

A robotic mission to Pysche would also help astronomers learn more about metal worlds, a type of solar system object that scientists know very little about. But perhaps the greatest reason to study 16 Psyche is the fact that it is unique. So far, this body is the only metallic core-like body that has been discovered in the Solar System.

The proposed spacecraft would orbit Psyche for six months, studying its topography, surface features, gravity, magnetism, and other characteristics. The mission would also be cost-effective and quick to launch, since it is largely based on technology that went into the making of NASA’s Dawn probe. Currently in orbit around Ceres, the Dawn mission has demonstrated the effectiveness of many new technologies, not the least of which was the xenon ion thruster.

The Psyche orbiter mission was selected as one of the Discovery Program’s five semifinalists on September 30th, 2015. Each proposal has received $3 million for year-long studies to lay out detailed mission plans and reduce risks. One or two finalist will be selected to receive the program’s budget of $450 million (minus the cost of a launch vehicle and mission operations) and will launch in 2020 at the earliest.

The Next Generation of Exploration: The DAVINCI Spacecraft

NASA's latest round of Discovery Program missions. Credit: NASA

It’s no secret that there has been a resurgence in interest in space exploration in recent years. Much of the credit for this goes to NASA’s ongoing exploration efforts on Mars, which in the past few years have revealed things like organic molecules on the surface, evidence of flowing water, and that the planet once had a denser atmosphere –  all of which indicate that the planet may have once been hospitable to life.

But when it comes to the future, NASA is looking beyond Mars to consider missions that will send missions to Venus, near-Earth objects, and a variety of asteroids. With an eye to Venus, they are busy investigating the possibility of sending the Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI) spacecraft to the planet by the 2020s.

Led by Lori Glaze of the Goddard Spaceflight Center, the DAVINCI descent craft would essentially pick up where the American and Soviet space programs left off with the Pioneer and Venera Programs in the 1970s and 80s. The last time either country sent a probe into Venus’ atmosphere was in 1985, when the Soviet probes Vega 1 and 2 both orbited the planet and released a balloon-supported aerobot into the upper atmosphere.

Model of the Vega 1 solar system probe bus and landing apparatus (model) - Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, Virginia, USA. Credit:
Model of the Vega 1 probe and landing apparatus at the Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, Virginia. Credit:

These probes both remained operational for 46 hours and discovered just how turbulent and powerful Venus’ atmosphere was. In contrast, the DAVINCI probe’s mission will be to study both the atmosphere and surface of Venus, and hopefully shed some light on some of the planet’s newfound mysteries. According to the NASA release:

“DAVINCI would study the chemical composition of Venus’ atmosphere during a 63-minute descent. It would answer scientific questions that have been considered high priorities for many years, such as whether there are volcanoes active today on the surface of Venus and how the surface interacts with the atmosphere of the planet.”

These studies will attempt to build upon the data obtained by the Venus Express spacecraft, which in 2008/2009 noted the presence of several infrared hot spots in the Ganis Chasma region near the the shield volcano of Maat Mons (shown below). Believed to be due to volcanic eruptions, this activity was thought to be responsible for significant changes that were noted in the sulfur dioxide (SO²) content in the atmosphere at the time.

What’s more, the Pioneer Venus spacecraft – which studied the planet’s atmosphere from 1978 until its orbit decayed in 1992 – noted a tenfold decreased in the density of SO² at the cloud tops, which was interpreted as a decline following an episode of volcanogenic upwelling from the lower atmosphere.

3-D perspective of the Venusian volcano, Maat Mons generated from radar data from NASA’s Magellan mission.
3-D perspective of the Venusian volcano, Maat Mons, generated from radar data from NASA’s Magellan mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

Commonly associated with volcanic activity here on Earth, SO² is a million times more abundant in Venus’ atmosphere, where it helps to power the runaway greenhouse effect that makes the planet so inhospitable. However, any SO² released into Venus’ atmosphere is also short-lived, being broken down by sunlight within a matter of days.

Hence, any significant changes in SO² levels in the upper atmosphere must have been a recent addition, and some scientists believe that the spike observed in 2008/2009 was due to a large volcano (or several) erupting. Determining whether or not this is the case, and whether or not volcanic activity plays an active role in the composition of Venus’s thick atmosphere, will be central to DAVINCI’s mission.

Along with four other mission concepts, DAVINCI was selected as a semifinalist for the NASA Discovery Program‘s latest calls for proposed missions. Every few years, the Discovery Program – a low-cost planetary missions program that is managed by the JPL’s Planetary Science Division – puts out a call for missions with an established budget of around $500 million (not counting the cost of launch or operation).

The latest call for submissions took place in February 2014, as part of the Discovery Mission 13. At the time, a total of 27 teams threw their hats into the ring to become part of the next round of space exploration missions. Last Wednesday, September 30th, 2015, five semifinalists were announced, one (or possibly two) of which will be chosen as the winner(s) by September 2016.

Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. Credit: JPL/NASA
Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander, which was selected as part of the Discovery Programs 2010 call for submissions and will be launched by 2016. Credit: JPL/NASA

These finalists will receive $3 million in federal grants for detailed concept studies, and the mission (or missions) that are ultimately chosen will be launched by December 31st, 2021. The Discovery Program began back in 1992, and launched its first mission- the Mars Pathfinder – in 1996. Other Discovery missions include the NEAR Shoemaker probe that first orbited an asteroid, and the Stardust-NExT project, which returned samples of comet and interstellar dust to Earth.

NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, the planet-hunting Kepler telescope, and the Dawn spacecraft were also developed and launched under the Discovery program. The winning proposal of the Discovery Program’s 12th mission, which was issued back in 2010, was the InSight Mars lander. Set to launch in March of 2016, the lander will touch down on the red planet, deploy instruments to the planet’s interior, and measure its seismic activity.

NASA hopes to infuse the next mission with new technologies, offering up government-furnished equipment with incentives to sweeten the deal for  each proposal. These include a supply of deep space optical communications system that are intended to test new high-speed data links with Earth. Science teams that choose to incorporate the laser telecom unit will be entitled to an extra $30 million above their $450 million cost cap.

If science teams wish to send entry probes into the atmospheres of Venus or Saturn, they will need a new type of heat shield. Hence, NASA’s solicitation includes a provision to furnish a newly-developed 3D-woven heat shield with a $10 million incentive. A deep space atomic clock is also available with a $5 million bonus, and NASA has offered to provide xenon ion thrusters and radioisotope heater units without incentives.

As with previous Discovery missions, NASA has stipulated that the mission must use solar power, limiting mission possibilities beyond Jupiter and Saturn. Other technologies may include the NEXT ion thruster and/or re-entry technology.

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”