JAXA’s Ambitious Mission to Phobos Will Even Have European-Built Rover

Phobos, a moon of Mars.
Japan is sending a spacecraft to Phobos to study it and collect samples for return to Earth. A German rover will be part of the fun. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Japan and Germany have a history of collaboration in scientific and technological endeavours. The countries have a Joint Committee on Cooperation in Science Technology that has met many times over the decades. Both countries have advanced, powerful economies and sophisticated technological know-how, so it makes sense they’d collaborate on scientific activities.

This time, their cooperation concerns a small, potato-shaped chunk of rock: Mars’ moon Phobos.

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Were Phobos and Deimos Once a Single Martian Moon That Split up? Not Likely, says New Study

A composite image of Mars and its two moons, Phobos (foreground) and Deimos (background). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The origin of Phobos and Deimos, the two Martian moons, has been a mystery to astronomers. These two bodies are a fraction of the size and mass of the Moon, measuring just 22.7 km (14 mi) and 12.6 km (7.83 mi) in diameter. Both have a rapid orbital period, taking just 7 hours, 39 minutes, and 12 seconds (Phobos) and 30 hours, 18 minutes, and 43 seconds (Deimos) to complete an orbit around Mars. Both are also irregular in shape, leading many to speculate that they were once asteroids that got kicked out of the Main Belt and were captured by Mars’ gravity.

There’s also the theory that Phobos and Deimos were once a single moon hit by a massive object, causing it to split up (aka. the “splitting hypothesis”). In a recent paper, an international team of scientists led by the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) revisited this hypothesis. They determined that a single moon in a synchronous orbit would not have produced two satellites as we see there today. Instead, they argue, the two moons would have collided before long, producing a debris ring that would have created an entirely new moon system.

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Samples of Asteroid Ryugu Contain More Than 20 Amino Acids

Artist's impression of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft touching down on the surface of the asteroid Ryugu. Credit: JAXA/Akihiro Ikeshita?

In 2014, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) dispatched its Hayabusa2 spacecraft to rendezvous with 162173 Ryugu, a Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) that periodically passes close to Earth. In 2018, this sample-return mission reached Ryugu and spent the next year and a half studying its surface and obtaining samples from its surface and subsurface. By 2020, these samples made it back to Earth, where scientists began analyzing them in the hopes of learning more about the early history of the Solar System and answering key questions about the origins of life.

Earlier this year, the first results of the analysis showed that Ryugu is (as expected) rich in carbon, organic molecules, and volatiles (like water) and hinted at the possibility that it was once a comet. Based on a more recent analysis, eight teams of Japanese researchers (including one from JAXA) recently announced that Ryugu carries strains of no less than 20 different amino acids -the building blocks of DNA and life itself! These findings could provide new insight into how life is distributed throughout the cosmos and could mean that it is more common than previously thought.

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Japan’s Upcoming Mission Will Use a Vacuum to Get its Sample From Phobos

The Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission (courtesy: JAXA/NASA).

JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, is carving out a niche for itself in sample-return missions. Their Hayabusa mission was the first mission to sample an asteroid when it brought dust from the asteroid Itokawa to Earth in 2010. Then its successor, Hayabusa 2, brought back a sample from asteroid Ryugu in 2020.

Now JAXA has the Martian moon Phobos in its sights and will send a spacecraft to sample it as soon as 2024. The mission is called Martian Moons eXploration (MMX), and it’ll use a pneumatic vacuum device to collect its samples.

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ESA Gives Green Light on its Comet Interceptor Mission

Comets, with their long, beautiful, bright tails of ice, are some of the most spectacular sightings in the night sky. This was most apparent when Comet NEOWISE passed by Earth in the summer of 2020, dazzling viewers from all over the planet while being mainly visible in the northern hemisphere. Even though the sky might look the same night after night, comets are a humble reminder that the universe is a very active and beautiful place.

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Asteroid Ryugu Might Actually Be a Dead Comet

egion of the highest resolution image. Yellow boxes correspond to the region in Figure 1. (Left) The region is shown on the ONC-T global image of Ryugu. (Right) ONC-W1 image, taken at 70 m height. 2018-09-21 13:02(JST). Credit: JAXA

In 2014, the Japanese Space Agency JAXA launched the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft to visit asteroid Ryugu. It arrived at the asteroid in June 2018 and studied it from orbit for over a year. Hayabusa 2 even dispatched four rovers to the asteroid’s surface. After departing, it flew past Earth in December 2020, dropping off a sample of Ryugu.

Of all the scientific results from that impressive mission, the most interesting one might be this: Asteroid Ryugu might not be an asteroid. It might be the remnant of a comet.

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BepiColombo Meets Mercury for the First Time on October 1

New research suggests that Mercury is still contracting and shrinking. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/Carnegie Institution of Washington/USGS/Arizona State University

BepiColombo made a quick visit to Venus in August and is on to its next rendezvous. On October 1st it’ll perform a flyby of Mercury, the spacecraft’s eventual destination. This visit is just a little flirtation—one of six—ahead of its eventual orbital link-up with Mercury in late 2025.

The quick visit will yield some scientific results, though, and they’ll be just a taste of what’s ahead in BepiColumbo’s one-year mission to Mercury.

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Japan’s Mission to Phobos Will Also Bring a Sample Home by 2029

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

Japan’s space agency (JAXA) is gearing up for its Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission, with plans to have a sample from Mars’ moon Phobos return to Earth by 2029.  Mission scientists say they hope to find clues to the origins of Mars two moons, as well as Mars itself, and possibly even traces of past life.

“We think that the Martian moon, Phobos, is loaded with material lifted from Mars during meteorite impacts,” the MMX team said on Twitter. “By collecting this Phobos sample, MMX will help investigate traces of Martian life and the new era of Martian habitability exploration in the 2020s will begin.”

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The First Images and Videos from the Double Venus Flyby

BepiColombo’s close-up image of Venus, taken by the spacecraft’s Monitoring Camera 3 on August 10, 2021. Credit: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM

Two spacecraft made historic flybys of Venus last week, and both sent back sci-fi-type views of the mysterious, cloud-shrouded planet.

The Solar Orbiter and BepiColombo spacecraft both used Venus for gravity assists within 33 hours of each other, capturing unique imagery and data during their encounters.

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Satellite Images Can Help Predict When Underwater Volcanos are About to Erupt

Predicting volcanic eruptions is notoriously tricky. In large part this is because volcanos are unique, each with their own quirks and personalities: the lessons learned from studying one volcano may not apply directly to another. Luckily, researchers are getting better at finding warning signs that they can apply broadly. Some of the most well-known are heightened seismic activity, rising temperatures, expanding magma pools, and the release of gases. New research using satellite imagery now offers a new warning sign for underwater volcanos: a change in the color of the ocean.

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