The ESA’s Mars Express probe has been studying Mars and its Moons for many years. While there are several missions currently in orbit around Mars, Mars Express‘s near-polar elliptical orbit gives it some advantages over the others. For one, its orbital path takes it closer to Phobos than any other spacecraft, which allows it to periodically observe the moon from distances of around 150 km (93 mi).
Because of this, the probe is in an ideal position to study Mars’ moons and capture images of them. On occasion, this allows for some interesting photo opportunities. For example, in November of 2017, while taking pictures of Phobos and Deimos, the probe spotted Saturn in the background. This fortuitous event led to the creation of some beautiful images, which were put together to produce a video.
Since 2003, Mars Express has been studying Phobos and Deimos in the hopes of learning more about these mysterious objects. While it has learned much about their size, appearance and position, much remains unknown about their composition, how and where they formed, and what their surface conditions are like. To answer these questions, the probe has been conducting regular flybys of these moons and taking pictures of them.
The video that was recently released by the ESA combines 30 such images which show Phobos passing through the frame. In the background, Saturn is visible as a small ringed dot, despite being roughly 1 billion km away. The images that were used to create this video were taken by the probes High Resolution Stereo Camera on November 26th, 2016, while the probe was traveling at a speed of about 3 km/s.
This photobomb was not unexpected, since the Mars Express repeatedly uses background reference stars and other bodies in the Solar System to confirm positions of the moons in the sky. In so doing, the probe is able to calculate the position of Phobos and Deimos with an accuracy of up to a few kilometers. The probes ideal position for capturing detailed images has also helped scientists to learn more about the surface features and structure of the two moons.
For instance, the pictures taken during the probe’s close flybys of Phobos showed its bumpy, irregular and dimpled surface in detail.The moon’s largest impact crater – the Stickney Crater – is also visible in one of the frames. Measuring 9 km ( mi) in diameter, this crater accounts for a third of the moon’s diameter, making it one the largest impact craters relative to body size in the Solar System.
In another image, taken on January 15th, 2018, Deimos is visible as an irregular and partially shadowed body in the foreground, while the delicate rings of Saturn are just visible encircling the small dot in the background (see below). In addition, Mars Express also obtained images of Phobos set against a reference star on January 8th, 2018 (see above) and close-up images of Phobos’ pockmarked surface on September 12th, 2017.
In the future, the Mars Express probe is expected to reveal a great deal more about Mars’ system of moons. In addition to the enduring questions of their origins, formation and composition, there are also questions about where future missions could land in order to study the surface directly. In particular, Phobos has been considered for a possible landing and sample-return mission.
Because of its nearness to Mars and the fact that one side is always facing towards the planet, the moon could make for an ideal location for a permanent observation post. This post would allow for the long-term study of the Martian surface and atmosphere, could act as a communications relay for other spacecraft, and could even serve as a base for future missions to the surface.
If and when such a mission to Phobos becomes a reality, it is the Mars Express probe that will determine where the ideal landing site would be. In essence, by studying the Martian moons to learning more about them, Mars Express is helping to prepare future missions to the Red Planet.
Be sure to check out the time-lapse video of Phobos and Saturn, courtesy of the ESA:
In an exclusive new interview with Universe Today, NASA’s Ames Research Center Director Pete Worden was “very excited” to discuss the historic Moon Shot set to launch NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter from the Virginia coast and the NASA Wallops Island facility on Friday night, Sept. 6, that boasts “a new modular design” that can revolutionize how we explore our solar system “with robotic orbiters, landers and rovers” – and is aimed at “answering fundamental science questions.”
“LADEE is the first in a new class of interplanetary exploration missions,” NASA Ames Director Worden told Universe Today. NASA Ames leads the LADEE mission. “It will study the pristine moon to study significant questions.”
“And it will demonstrate a new modular approach that will give us science at a lower cost. We are very excited.”
“It will tell us a lot about the moon,” Worden told me.
When America returns to the Moon with the LADEE spacecraft blasting off shortly before midnight Sept. 6, it could potentially be watched by many tens of millions of spectators – weather permitting – along the US East Coast stretching from Maine to the Carolina’s and into parts of the Midwest. See launch visibility map below.
And the science timing for LADEE’s lunar mission is just perfect as well since several countries and corporations are gearing up to dispatch a batch of new orbiters and landers to Earth’s nearest neighbor that could change its character forever.
“This is probably our last best chance to study the pristine Moon before there is a lot of human activity there changing things.”
The purpose of LADEE’s trio of science instruments is to collect data that will inform scientists in unprecedented detail about the ultra thin lunar atmosphere, environmental influences on lunar dust and conditions near the surface.
The couch sized probe is built on a ‘modular common spacecraft bus’, or body, that could be implemented on space probes to explore a wide variety of targets in the solar system.
“We think the modular bus is a winner,” Worden explained to Universe Today.
“LADEE could lead to other low cost missions to orbit and even land on the Moon, near Earth asteroids, Mercury and also the moons of Mars.”
“The LADEE bus is a strong contender for future NASA planetary missions, especially landers on bodies with a tenuous atmosphere. And small micro-rovers are possible too. We are really proud of it!”
LADEE is NASA’s first ever planetary mission to launch from the Eastern Shore of Virginia at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island. The blastoff is expected to draw large crowds. Some local hotels are already sold out.
The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) Observatory is NASA’s next mission to the Moon.
It thunder’s to space at 11:27 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6, from launch complex 0B at NASA’s Wallops Island facility and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) atop the maiden flight of the new, solid fueled Minotaur V rocket developed by Orbital Sciences Corp.
The goal of the $280 Million mission is to gain a thorough understanding of long-standing unknowns about the tenuous atmosphere, dust and surface interactions that will help scientists understand other planetary bodies as well.
“After Apollo, the amazing thing is that we opened as many questions as we answered,” said Worden. “One of the key issues is – What is the environment on the Moon’s surface from the lunar day to the lunar night?”
“And what are the limitations that would place on our activities there?”
“Although the moon has a tenuous atmosphere it’s actually very active and interacts very strongly with the solar wind. It may produce something that on Earth we would call a ‘dust storm’.”
“We also wish to have the ‘ground truth’ [measurements] of the Moon’s environment before humans change things.”
And change is inexorably coming to the Moon rather soon.
“The Chinese plan to land on the Moon by year’s end,” Worden elaborated.
“What we found during Apollo is that an artificial disturbance very considerably changes the Moon’s atmosphere – or exosphere.”
“So we really want to known the pristine state of the lunar exosphere before its changed by human activity.”
“The data we have from Apollo surface measurements shows that it took many months for the lunar exosphere to go back to its pristine state.”
“Now there are probably a half dozen to a dozen programs planning to land on the Moon in the next decade. So we may never see the Moon’s pristine state again!”
“So these are pretty significant questions that we will have an opportunity to answer with LADEE.”
LADEE is the first spacecraft of any kind that’s been designed, developed, built, integrated and tested at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.
“This is our first complete mission built out at Ames,” Worden explained.
“It’s also the first of a new paradigm where we are trying to develop a low cost modular bus design.
The approach on LADEE was to make it a mix and match modular bus – rather than a singular modular bus.
“So we have modular slices that use a propulsion stage, lander stage, communications stage, science payload stage, bus housekeeping stage and more,” Worden told me.
“In the past many others tried to build a ‘one size fits all’ modular bus. But it turns out that one size does NOT fit all needs.”
“So we took a page from how you build desktop computers.”
“We put in different modules that you can expand or subtract much more easily without changing the whole fundamental architecture or design.”
“So assuming this works well, I think you will see a lot more missions. And that makes it really exciting as our first mission.”
And the Ames modular bus has definitely sparked entrepreneurial interest.
“The bus is already an approach being used by at least one of the Google Lunar X-Prize competitors! The Moon Express team has looked at it a lot to transition that capability to them,” Worden explained.
How about future NASA missions?
“The LADEE bus is also a key part of several of our Ames proposals for future planetary missions,” Worden replied.
“The original design concept about seven years ago was for a small lunar lander. The lander propulsion would likely be a solid fueled stage.”
“Ultimately, NASA decided to go with the orbiter instead. And that showed the strength of the modular bus design – that it was very easy to change it from a lunar lander to the LADEE mission orbiter studying the lunar exosphere.”
I asked if it could deploy a small rover too?
“Yes- a small, micro rover is possible, perhaps 10 to 20 inches in size. And you could pack a lot of science on the small rover using today’s technology!
Thus there are numerous exploration possibilities – all dependent on the Federal budget for NASA in this extremely difficult fiscal environment.
NASA Ames had “built parts and spacecraft components and science instruments before, but not a spacecraft in the entirety and in house,” Worden told Universe Today.
For example, a few years back Ames built the LCROSS lunar impacting spacecraft that smashed into the Moon’s south pole and discovered a treasure trove of water ice.
LCROSS piggybacked as a secondary science mission payload onto NASA’ s Lunar Reconnaisannce Orbiter (LRO) when the duo launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida atop an Atlas V rocket.
NASA Ames has now taken the next step – having designed and built the whole LADEE spacecraft from beginning to end.
“This is our first real baby. It’s very exciting,” beamed Worden.
“LADEE is a pretty phenomenal mission.”
They say “Virginia is for Lovers’
Well coming this Friday, “Virginia is for Space Lovers too!”
And remember that NASA has a 2nd historic launch from Wallops slated for Sep. 17 – with blastoff of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo carrier bound for its 1st flight to the International Space Station (ISS).
Be sure to watch for my continuing LADEE and Antares mission reports from on site at NASA’s Wallops Launch Pads in sunny Virginia – reporting for Universe Today.
Mars moon Phobos (above, center) rising in the night time Martian sky shortly after sunset in this still image from a movie taken by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 317, June 28, 2013. The apparent ring is an imaging artifact. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech See the complete ‘Phobos Rising’ movie below [/caption]
Every once in a while when the time is just right and no one is looking, Curiosity’s Earthly handlers allow her some night time Martian delights.
In this case a pair of rising and setting celestial events bookend another magnificent week in humankinds exploration of the Red Planet – courtesy of NASA.
This past week NASA’s Curiosity rover captured esthetically stunning imagery of Phobos rising and Our Sun setting on Mars.
Phobos is the larger of Mars pair of tiny moons. The other being Diemos.
On June 28, (Sol 317) Curiosity aimed her navigation camera straight overhead to captured a breathtaking series of 86 images as Phobos was ascending in the alien evening sky shortly after sunset.
NASA combined these raw images taken over about 27 minutes into a short movie clip, sped up from real time.
Video Caption: ‘Phobos Rising’ – This movie clip shows Phobos, the larger of the two moons of Mars, passing overhead, as observed by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity in a series of images centered straight overhead starting shortly after sunset. Phobos first appears near the lower center of the view and moves toward the top of the view. The images were taken on June 28, 2013. The apparent ring is an imaging artifact. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The pockmarked and potato shaped moon measures about 26.8 × 22.4 × 18.4 kilometers.