Japan Is Sending a Lander to Phobos

Sending a mission to moons of Mars has been on the wish list for mission planners and space enthusiasts for quite some time. For the past few years, however, a team of Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) engineers and scientists have been working on putting such a mission together. Now, JAXA announced this week that the Martian Moon eXploration (MMX) mission has been greenlighted to move forward, with the goal of launching an orbiter, lander — and possibly a rover — with sample return capability in 2024.

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Two Solar Eclipses Seen From the Surface of Mars by Curiosity

Ever since the Curiosity rover landed on Mars in 2012, it has provided NASA scientists with invaluable data about the planet’s past, as well as some breathtaking images of the planet’s surface. Much like its predecessors, the Spirit and Opportunity rover, many of these images have shown what it is like to look up at the sky from the surface of Mars and witness celestial events.

Of these events, one of the most intriguing has to be the many Martian solar eclipses that have taken place since the rover’s landed. Last month, the Curiosity rover witnessed two eclipses as the moons of Phobos and Deimos both passed in front of the Sun. These latest eclipses will allow scientists to fine-tune their predictions about Mars’ satellites and how they orbit the Red Planet.

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New Photos of Saturn and Mars from Hubble

During the summer of 2018, the planets of Mars and Saturn (one after the other) have been in opposition. In astronomical terms, opposition refers to when a planet is on the opposite side of the Earth relative to the Sun. This not only means that the planet is closer to Earth in its respective orbit, but that is also fully lit by the Sun (as seen from Earth) and much more visible.

As a result, astronomers are able to observe these planets in greater detail. The Hubble Space Telescope took advantage of this situation to do what it has done best for the past twenty-eight years – capture some breathtaking images of both planets! Hubble made its observations of Saturn in June and Mars in July, and showed both planets close to their opposition.

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Hubble Sees Tiny Phobos Orbiting Mars

Mars’ moon Phobos is a pretty fascinating customer! Compared to Mars’ other moon Deimos, Phobos (named after the Greek personification of fear) is the larger and innermost satellite of the Red Planet. Due to its rapid orbital speed, the irregularly-shaped moon orbits Mars once every 7 hours, 39 minutes, and 12 seconds. In other words, it completes over three orbits of Mar within a single Earth day.

It’s not too surprising then that during a recent observation of Mars with the Hubble space telescope,  Phobos chose to photobomb the picture! It all took place in May of 2016, when while Mars was near opposition and Hubble was trained on the Red Planet to take advantage of it making its closest pass to Earth in over a decade. The well-timed sighting also led to the creation of a time-lapse video that shows the moon’s orbital path.

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New Japanese mission will be going to the Moons of Mars

In the coming decades, the world’s largest space agencies hope to mount some exciting missions to the Moon and to Mars. Between NASA, Roscosmos, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), there is simply no shortage of proposals for Lunar bases, crewed missions to Mars, and robotic explorers to both.

However, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has a different mission in mind when it comes to the coming decades. Instead of exploring the Moon or Mars, they propose exploring the moons of Mars! Known as the Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) mission, the plan is to have a robotic spacecraft fly to Phobos and Deimos to explore their surfaces and return samples to Earth for analysis.

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How Many Moons Does Mercury Have?

Virtually every planet in the Solar System has moons. Earth has The Moon, Mars has Phobos and Deimos, and Jupiter and Saturn have 67 and 62 officially named moons, respectively. Heck, even the recently-demoted dwarf planet Pluto has five confirmed moons – Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx. And even asteroids like 243 Ida may have satellites orbiting them (in this case, Dactyl). But what about Mercury?

If moons are such a common feature in the Solar System, why is it that Mercury has none? Yes, if one were to ask how many satellites the planet closest to our Sun has, that would be the short answer. But answering it more thoroughly requires that we examine the process through which other planets acquired their moons, and seeing how these apply (or fail to apply) to Mercury.

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Phobos & Deimos — The Moons of Mars Explained

Where did Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos come from? How did they end up in orbit around Mars? This cool video from the folks at Kurzgesagt answers the most-oft asked questions about these mini moons.

You should also check out their other wonderful videos, like the one about our own Moon, below, which explains how big our Moon really is. The answer might surprise you.

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Curiosity Captures ‘Phobos Rising’ Movie and Sun Setting on Mars

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.

Phobos orbits barely some 6,000 km (3,700 mi) above the Martian surface. One day far in the future, it will crash and burn.

On June 22, Curiosity snapped an evocative series of Martian sunset photos as Sol set behind the eroded rim of Gale Crater – see below.

In the 2030’s, Humans may visit Phobos first before setting foot on the much more technically challenging Red Planet.

In the meantime, enjoy the otherworldly view!

Ken Kremer

Martian sunset vista at Gale crater rim snapped by Curiosity on Sol 312, June 22, 2013.  Colorized navcam image.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
Sunset at Gale Crater
Martian sunset vista at Gale crater rim snapped by Curiosity on Sol 312, June 22, 2013. Colorized navcam image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

Phobos from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on March 23, 2008. Credit: NASA
Phobos from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on March 23, 2008. Credit: NASA

Awesome Action Animation Depicts Russia’s Bold Robot Retriever to Mars moon Phobos

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In less than 48 hours, Russia’s bold Phobos-Grunt mechanized probe will embark on a historic flight to haul humanities first ever soil samples back from the tiny Martian moon Phobos. Liftoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome remains on target for November 9 (Nov 8 US 3:16 p.m. EDT).

For an exquisite view of every step of this first-of-its-kind robot retriever, watch this spectacular action packed animation (below) outlining the entire 3 year round trip voyage. The simulation was produced by Roscosmos, Russia’s Federal Space Agency and the famous IKI Space Research Institute. It’s set to cool music – so don’t’ worry, you don’t need to understand Russian.

Another video below shows the arrival and uncrating of the actual Phobos-Grunt spacecraft at Baikonur in October 2011.

The highly detailed animation begins with the blastoff of the Zenit booster rocket and swiftly progresses through Earth orbit departure, Phobos-Grunt Mars orbit insertion, deployment of the piggybacked Yinghuo-1 (YH-1) mini satellite from China, Phobos-Grunt scientific reconnaissance of Phobos and search for a safe landing site, radar guided propulsive landing, robotic arm manipulation and soil sample collection and analysis, sample transfer to the Earth return capsule and departure, plummeting through Earth’s atmosphere and Russian helicopter retrieval of the precious cargo carrier.


Video Caption: Every step of Russia’s Phobos-Grunt soil retrieval mission. Credit: Roscosmos/IKI


Video Caption: On October 21, the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft arrived at the Baikonur Cosmodrome and was uncrated and moved to assembly building 31 for fueling, final preflight processing and encapsulation in the nose cone. Credit: Roscosmos

Labeled Schematic of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 (YH-1) orbiter. Credit: Roskosmos

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt upcoming Nov. 9 launch here:
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1 Encapsulated for Voyage to Mars and Phobos
Phobos and Jupiter Conjunction in 3 D and Amazing Animation – Blastoff to Martian Moon near
Russia Fuels Phobos-Grunt and sets Mars Launch for November 9
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 Arrive at Baikonur Launch Site to tight Mars Deadline
Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff

Russia Fuels Phobos-Grunt and sets Mars Launch for November 9

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Russia’s Space Agency, Roscosmos, has set November 9 as the launch date for the Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars and its tiny moon Phobos. Roscosmos has officially announced that the audacious mission to retrieve the first ever soil samples from the surface of Phobos will blastoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Zenit-2SB rocket at 00:16 a.m. Moscow time.

Roscosmos said that engineers have finished loading all the propellants into the Phobos-Grunt main propulsion module (cruise stage), Phobos lander and Earth return module at Facility 31 at Baikonur.

Phobos-Grunt is Russia’s first mission to Mars in almost two decades and a prelude to an ambitious program of even more interplanetary Russian science flights.

Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft is set to launch to Mars on November 9, 2011.
L-shaped soil sample transfer tube extends from Earth return module ( top -yellow) and solar panel to bottom (left) of lander module. 2 landing legs, communications antenna, sampling arm, propulsion tanks and more are visible. Credit Roscosmos

Technicians also fueled the companion Yinghou-1 mini-satellite, provided by China, that will ride along inside a truss segment between the MDU propulsion module and the Phobos-Grunt lander.

The 12,000 kg Phobos-Grunt interplanetary spacecraft is being moved to an integration and test area at Facility 31 for integration with the departure segments of the Zenit rocket.

The next step is to enclose Phobos-Grunt inside the protective payload fairing and transport it to Facility 42 for mating atop the upper stage of the stacked Zenit-2SB booster rocket.

After about an 11 month journey, the spaceship will enter Mars orbit and spend several months searching for a suitable landing site on Phobos. The goal of the bold mission is to retrieve up to 200 grams of soil and rock from Phobos and return them to Earth in August 2014. The samples will help unlock the mysteries of the origin and evolution of Phobos, Mars and the Solar System.

Scientists hope that bits of Martian soil will be mixed in with Phobos soil.

Phobos-Grunt is equipped with a powerful 50 kg payload of some 20 international science instruments.

The 110 kg Yinghou-1, which translates as Firefly-1, is China’s first spaceship to voyage to Mars. It will be jettisoned by Phobos-Grunt into a separate orbit about Mars. The probe will photograph the Red planet with two cameras and study it with a magnetometer to explore Mars’ magnetic field and science instruments to explore its upper atmosphere.

Earth’s other mission to Mars in 2011, NASA’s Curiosity rover, is set to blast off for Mars on Nov. 25

Labeled Schematic of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 (YH-1) orbiter

Read Ken’s continuing features about Russia’s Phobos-Grunt Mars mission here::
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 Arrive at Baikonur Launch Site to tight Mars Deadline
Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff

Read Ken’s continuing features about Curiosity starting here:
Curiosity Buttoned Up for Martian Voyage in Search of Life’s Ingredients
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action