How Mars’ Moon Phobos Captures Our Imaginations

This is a colourized version of a black and white image captured by the ESA's Mars Express in 2010. Andrea Luck, a skilled image processor from Glasgow, improved the original image. Image Credit: ESA/DLR/FUBerlin/AndreaLuck CC BY. Original Image: https://www.planetary.org/space-images/20130714_phobosnd_img

For a small, lumpy chunk of rock that barely reflects any light, Mars’ Moon Phobos draws a lot of attention. Maybe because it’s one of only two moons to orbit the planet, and its origins are unclear. But some of the attention is probably because we have such great images of it.

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Perseverance Sees Phobos, Deimos and Mercury Passing in Front of the Sun

NASA's Perseverance Mars rover used its Mastcam-Z camera to capture the silhouette of Phobos, the larger of Mars' pair of moons, as it passed in front of the Sun on Feb. 8, 2024, the 1,056th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS/SSI

NASA’s Perseverance rover is busy exploring the Martian surface and collecting samples for eventual return to Earth. But the rover recently took some time to gaze upward and observe the heavens. Using Mastcam-Z, the rover’s primary science camera, Perseverance captured Phobos, Deimos, and Mercury as they transited in front of the Sun.

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Odyssey Gives Us a Cool New View of Mars

This unusual view of the horizon of Mars was captured by NASA’s Odyssey orbiter using its THEMIS camera, in an operation that took engineers three months to plan. It’s taken from about 250 miles above the Martian surface – about the same altitude at which the International Space Station orbits Earth. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Chances are that you’ve seen images of Earth from space, thanks to the astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS), who regularly share stunning photos of our planet. These images provide us regularly with breathtaking views of cities, oceans, storms, eruptions, clouds, the curvature of the planet, and the way the atmosphere glows against the horizon. Thanks to NASA’s Mars Odyssey Orbiter, which has been in orbit for over 22 years, we now have an equally breathtaking view of Mars from orbit that captured what its curvature and atmosphere look like from space.

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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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Mars Express Watched Deimos Pass in Front of Jupiter and its Moons

Deimos
Deimos, as seen by Mars Express. Credit: ESA.

That’s no moon … wait … yes, it is, and more!

ESA’s Mars Express has captured an unusual and rare occultation, all from its vantage point in orbit of Mars.  The spacecraft’s orbit brought it to the right place where it could witness the moment Mars’ small moon Deimos passed in front of Jupiter and its four largest moons. Scientists say that celestial alignments like these enable a more precise determination of the Martian moons’ orbits.

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New Pics of Phobos From China’s Tianwen-1 Orbiter

Two fundamental factors affect all astrophotography – timing and location. If a camera happens to be at the right place at the right time, it can capture images that have never been seen before. And with the proliferation of cameras throughout the solar system, more and more novel photos will be captured at an ever-increasing frequency. China’s Tianwen-1 probe added to that novel collection to celebrate its second anniversary by taking a shot of Mars’ moon Phobos.

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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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The Best Evidence for Life on Mars Might be Found on its Moons

The search for Martian life has been ongoing for decades.  Various landers and rovers have searched for biosignatures or other hints that life existed either currently or in the past on the Red Planet.  But so far, results have been inconclusive.  That might be about to change, though, with a slew of missions planned to collect even more samples for testing.  Mars itself isn’t the only place they are looking, though. Some scientists think the best place to find evidence of life is one of Mars’ moons. 

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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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