Mars’ Moon Deimos

The Moons of Mars

Mars and Earth have several things in common. Like Earth, Mars is a terrestrial planet (i.e. composed of silicate rock and minerals). It also has polar ice caps, a tilted axis, and evidence of liquid water on its surface. On top of that, Mars and Earth are the only terrestrial planets in the Solar System to have natural satellites.

In fact, Mars has two satellites, which are appropriately named Phobos and Deimos (named after the Greek gods of horror and terror, respectively). Of the two, Deimos is the smaller moon and orbits at a greater distance from the planet. And like Deimos, it has the characteristics of an asteroid, which is a strong indication of where it may have come from.

Discovery and Naming:

Deimos was discovered in 1877 by American astronomer Asaph Hall, who was deliberately searching for Martian moons at the United States Naval Observatory (USNO). Its name was suggested shortly thereafter by Henry Madan, the Science Master of Eton College, and was derived from Homer’s The Iliad.

Phobos and Deimos, photographed here by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, are tiny, irregularly-shaped moons that are probably strays from the main asteroid belt. Credit: NASA - See more at:
Phobos and Deimos, photographed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL

Size, Mass and Orbit:

Deimos has a mean radius of between 6 and 6.38 km (3.73 – 3.96 mi). However, the moon is not a round body, and measures roughly 15 × 12.2 × 11 km (9.32 x 7.58 x 6.835 mi), making it 0.56 times the size of Phobos. At 1.4762 × 1015 kg, or 1.4762 trillion metric tons, Deimos is 1/49,735,808 times as massive as the Moon. As a result, Deimos’ surface gravity is very weak, just 0.003 m/s – or 0.000306 g. 

Deimos’ orbit is nearly circular, ranging from 23455.5 km at periapsis (closest) to 23470.9 km at apoapsis (farthest) – which works out to an average distance (semi-major axis) of 23,463.2 km. With an average orbital speed of 1.3513 km/s, it takes 30 hours, 18 minutes and 43.2 seconds to complete a single orbit (or 1.263 days).

Composition and Surface Features:

Deimos, like Phobos, is similar in composition to carbonaceous chondrite and silicate/carbon-rich (C- and D-type) asteroids. Though the surface is cratered, it is considerably smoother than Phobos’ surface, which is due to its craters being filled with regolith.

Only two geological features on Deimos have been given names – the craters of Voltaire and Swift. These features take their names from the famous 17th/18th century French and English writers who speculated about the existence of two Martian moons before they were even discovered.

HiRISE captured these enhanced-color images of Deimos, the smaller of the two moons of Mars, on 21 February 2009. Credit: NASA/JPL
Image of Deimos captured by HiRISE, showing the craters of Voltaire and Swift in the upper left corner. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona


The origin of Mars’ moons remains unknown, but some hypotheses exist. The most widely-accepted theory states that, based on their similarity to C- or D-type asteroids, they are objects that were kicked out of the Asteroid Belt by Jupiter’s gravity. They were then captured by Mars’ and fell into their current orbits due to atmospheric drag or tidal forces.

However, this theory remains controversial since Mars’ current atmosphere is too thin. As such, it is highly unlikely that it would have been able to cause enough drag to slow either moon down enough for them to have achieved their current orbits. A modified version of this hypothesis is that Phobos and Deimos were once a binary asteroid, which was then captured and separated by tidal forces.

Other popular hypotheses include that they were formed by accretion in their current orbits, or that Mars was once surrounded by many large asteroids which were ejected into orbit it after a collision with a planetesimal – like the one that formed Earth’s Moon. Over time, these would have fallen back to the surface until only Phobos and Deimos remained.


Overall, Deimos history of exploration is tied to that of Mars and Phobos. While no landings have been made on its surface, several have been proposed in the past. The first of these were made as part of  the Soviet Phobos (Fobos) program, which involved two probes – Fobos 1 and 2 – that were launched in July of 1988.

If the first proved successful in landing on Phobos, the second would been diverted to make a landing on Deimos. However, the first probe was lost en route to Mars while the second managed to returned some data and images of Phobos surface before contact was lost.

In 1997-1998, NASA selected the proposed Aladdin mission as a finalist for its Discovery Program. The plan was to visit both Phobos and Deimos with sample return missions involving an orbiter and lander. After reaching the surface, the landers would collect samples and then launch them back to the orbiters (which would return them to Earth). However, the mission was passed over in favor of the MESSENGER probe, which was sent to study Mercury.

Other missions have been proposed with are still under study. These include the “Hall” concept proposed in 2008, which calls for a probe that relies on solar-electric propulsion (SEP) to reach Mars and return with samples to Earth. Another was the Gulliver mission, a concept proposed in 2010 which would attempt to retrieve 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of material from Deimos’ surface.

The planners behind the OSIRIS-REx mission have also proposed mounting a second mission that would return samples from Phobos and Deimos. And at the 2014 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, a proposal was made for a low-cost mission based on the Lunar Atmosphere Dust and Environment Explorer. It is named the Phobos and Deimos & Mars Environment (PADME) mission, and would involve an orbiter being sent to Mars by 2021.

Deimos has been photographed from the surface of Mars by both the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers. And someday, actual astronauts may be able to look up at it from the Martian surface. From their point of view, Deimos would appear like a star to the unaided eye. At its brightest, it might look like Venus does from here on Earth.

For those watching over an extended period of time, Deimos would pass directly in front of the Sun quite regularly. It’s too small to cause a total eclipse, it would look like a black dot moving across the face of the Sun.

We have written many interesting articles about Mars’ moons here at Universe Today. Here’s How Many Moons Does Mars Have?, Phobos and Deimos – the Moons of Mars Explained, Phobos and Deimos Together at Last!, Moon Dance: Curiosity Rover Captures Movie of Phobos and Deimos Together and Opportunity sees Phobos and Deimos.

For more information, be sure to check out this Solar Views article on Deimos.

Astronomy Cast also has some relevant episodes on the subject – Episode 52: Mars, and Episode 91: The Search for Water on Mars.


On The Origin Of Phobos’ Groovy Mystery


Mars’ natural satellites – Phobos and Deimos – have been a mystery since they were first discovered. While it is widely believed that they are former asteroids that were captured by Mars’ gravity, this remains unproven. And while some of Phobos’ surface features are known to be the result of Mars’ gravity, the origin of its linear grooves and crater chains (catenae) have remained unknown.

But thanks to a new study by Erik Asphaug of Arizona State University and Michael Nayak from the University of California, we may be closer to understanding how Phobos’ got its “groovy” surface. In short, they believe that re-accretion is the answer, where all the material that was ejected when meteors impacted the moon eventually returned to strike the surface again.

Naturally, Phobos’ mysteries extend beyond its origin and surface features. For instance, despite being much more massive than its counterpart Deimos, it orbits Mars at a much closer distance (9,300 km compared to over 23,000 km). It’s density measurements have also indicated that the moon is not composed of solid rock, and it is known to be significantly porous.

(a) Spacecraft image of Phobos (photo credit: ESA/Mars Express) showing the observed catena of interest (red arrows); (b) reimpact map for a primary impact at Grildrig, azimuth ?? [0: ) rendered in three dimensions. Relative sizes and orientations between a and b are similar and may be correlated from Drunlo, Clustril, Grildrig, Gulliver and Roche craters, respectively. From the correlation, the highlighted catena likely originates from sesquinary ejecta from Grildrig.
Image of Phobos showing the observed catena of interest (left) and reimpact map for a primary impact at Grildrig (right). Credit: ESA/Mars Express
Because of this proximity, it is subject to a lot of tidal forces exerted by Mars. This causes its interior, a large portion of which is believed to consist of ice, to flex and stretch. This action, it has been theorized, is what is responsible for the stress fields that have been observed on the moon’s surface.

However, this action cannot account for another common feature on Phobos, which are the striation patterns (aka. grooves) that run perpendicular to the stress fields. These patterns are essentially chains of craters that typically measure 20 km (12 mi) in length, 100 – 200 meters (330 – 660 ft) in width, and usually 30 m (98 ft) in depth.

In the past, it was assumed that these craters were the result of the same impact that created Stickney, the largest impact crater on Phobos. However, analysis from the Mars Express mission revealed that the grooves are not related to Stickney. Instead, they are centered on Phobos’ leading edge and fade away the closer one gets to its trailing edge.

For the sake of their study, which was recently published in Nature Communications, Asphaug and Nayak used computer modeling to simulate how other meteoric impacts could have created these crater patterns, which they theorized were formed when the resulting ejecta circled back and impacted the surface in other locations.

Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin-Neukum
Image showing the Stickney crater (left) and how ejecta from an impact can form patterns (right) and crater chains (catenae). Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin-Neukum

As Dr. Asphaug told Universe Today via email, their work was the result of a meeting of minds that spawned an interesting theory:

“Dr. Nayak had been studying with Prof. Francis Nimmo (of UCSC), the idea that ejecta could swap between the Martian moons. So Mikey and I met up to talk about that, and the possibility that Phobos could sweep up its own ejecta. Originally I had been thinking that seismic events (triggered by impacts) might cause Phobos to shed material tidally, since it’s inside the Roche limit, and that this material would thin out into rings that would be reaccreted by Phobos. That still might happen, but for the prominent catenae the answer turned out to be much simpler (after a lot of painstaking computations) – that crater ejecta is faster than Phobos’ escape velocity, but much slower than Mars orbital velocity, and much of it gets swept up after several co-orbits about Mars, forming these patterns.”

Basically, they theorized that if a meteorite stuck Phobos in just the right place, the resulting debris could have been thrown off into space and swept up later as Phobos swung back around mars. Thought Phobos does not have sufficient gravity to re-accrete ejecta on its own, Mars’ gravitational pull ensures that anything thrown off by the moon will be pulled into orbit around it.

Once this debris is pulled into orbit around Mars, it will circle the planet a few times until it eventually falls into Phobos’ orbital path. When that happens, Phobos will collide with it, triggering another impact that throws off more ejecta, thus causing the whole process to repeat itself.

The streaked and stained surface of Phobos. (Image: NASA)
The streaked and stained surface of Phobos, with the Stickney crater shown in the center. Credit: NASA/JPL/Mars Express

In the end, Asphaug and Nayak concluded that if an impact hit Phobos at a certain point, the subsequent collisions with the resulting debris would form a chain of craters in discernible patterns – possibly within days. Testing this theory required some computer modeling on an actual crater.

Using Grildrig (a 2.6 km crater near Phobos’ north pole) as a reference point, their model showed that the resulting string of craters was consistent with the chains that have been observed on Phobos’ surface. And while this remains a theory, this initial confirmation does provide a basis for further testing.

“The initial main test of the theory is that the patterns match up, ejecta from Grildrig for example,” said Asphaug. “But it’s still a theory. It has some testable implications that we’re now working on.”

In addition to offering a plausible explanation of Phobos’ surface features, their study is also significant in that it is the first time that sesquinary craters (i.e. craters caused by ejecta that went into orbit around the central planet) were traced back to their primary impacts.

The many faces of Mars inner moon, Phobos (Credit: NASA)
Mosaic of space images showing the many “faces” of Mars inner moon, Phobos. Credit: NASA

In the future, this kind of process could prove to be a novel way to assess the surface characteristics of planets and other bodies – such as the heavily cratered moons of Jupiter and Saturn. These findings will also help us to learn more about Phobos history, which in turn will help shed light on the history of Mars.

“[It] expands our ability to make cross-cutting relationships on Phobos that will reveal the sequence of geologic history,” Asphaug added. “Since Phobos’ geologic history is slaved to the tidal dissipation of Mars, in learning the timescale of Phobos geology we learn about the interior structure of Mars”

And all of this information is likely to come in handy when it comes time for NASA to mount crewed missions to the Red Planet. One of the key steps in the proposed “Journey to Mars” is a mission to Phobos, where the crew, a Mars habitat, and the mission’s vehicles will all be deployed in advance of a mission to the Martian surface.

Learning more about the interior structure of Mars is a goal shared by many of NASA’s future missions to the planet, which includes NASA’s InSight Lander (schedules for launch in 2018). Shedding light on Mars geology is expected to go a long way towards explaining how the planet lost its magnetosphere, and hence its atmosphere and surface water, billions of years ago.

Further Reading: Nature Communications

How Close Can Moons Orbit?

The Moon is great and all, but I wish it was closer. Close enough that I could see all kinds of detail on its surface without a telescope or a pair of binoculars. Close enough that I could just reach up and grab enough cheese for a lifetime of grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sure, there would be all kinds of horrible problems with having the Moon that much closer. Intense tides, a total lack of good dark nights for stargazing, and something else… Oh right, the total destruction of life on Earth. On second thought the Moon can stay right where it is, thank you very much.

The Earth’s Moon is located an average distance of 384,400 kilometers away. I say average because the Moon actually follows an elliptical orbit. At its closest point, it’s only 362,600 km, and at its furthest point, it’s 405,400 kilometers.

Still, that’s so far that it takes light a little over a second to reach the Moon, traveling almost 300,000 km/s. The Moon is far.

But what if the Moon was much closer? How close could it get and still be the Moon?

Many of the features on the moon are named as oceans. Credit: NASA
The Moon isn’t actually getting closer. It just looks that way because it’s on your computer screen. Credit: NASA

Once again, I need to remind you that this is purely theoretical. The Moon isn’t getting closer to us, in fact, it’s getting further. The Moon is slowly drifting away from us at a distance of almost 4 centimeters per year.

Let’s go back to the beginning, when the young Earth collided with a Mars-sized planet billions of years ago. This catastrophic encounter completely resurfaced planet Earth, and kicked up a massive amount of debris into orbit. Well, a Moon’s worth of debris, which collected together by mutual gravity into the roughly spherical Moon we recognize today.

Shortly after its formation, the Moon was much closer, and the Earth was spinning more rapidly. A day on Earth was only 6 hours long, and the Moon took just 17 days to orbit the Earth.

The Earth’s gravity stopped the Moon’s relative rotation, and the Moon’s gravity has been slowing the Earth’s rotation. To maintain the overall angular momentum of the system, the Moon has been drifting away to compensate.

This conservation of momentum is very important because it works both ways. As long as a moon takes longer than a day to orbit its planet, you’re going to see this same effect. The planet’s rotation slows, and the moon drifts further to compensate.

But if you have a scenario where the moon orbits faster than the planet rotates, you have the exact opposite situation. The moon makes the planet rotate more quickly, and it drifts closer to compensate. This can’t end well.

Once you get close enough, gravity becomes a harsh mistress.

Reaching the Roche limit can ruin your day. Credit: Hazmat2. Original Image Credit: Theresa Knott. CC-SA 3.0
Reaching the Roche limit can ruin your day. Credit: Hazmat2. Original Image Credit: Theresa Knott. CC-SA 3.0

There’s a point in all gravitational interactions called the Roche Limit. This is the point at which an object held together by gravity (like the Moon), gets close enough to another celestial body that it gets torn apart.

The exact point depends on the mass, size and density of the two objects. For example, the Roche Limit between the Earth and the Moon is about 9,500 kilometers, assuming the Moon is a solid ball. In other words, if the Moon gets within 9,500 kilometers or so, of the Earth, the gravity of the Earth overwhelms the gravity holding the Moon together.

The Moon would be torn apart, and turned into a ring. And then the pieces of the ring would continue to orbit the Earth until they all came crashing down. When that happened, it would be a series of very bad days for anyone living on Earth.

Get too close to the sun and a comet could be torn apart. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If an average comet got within about 18,000 km of Earth, it would get torn to pieces. While the Sun can, and does, tear apart comets from about 1.3 million km away.

This sounds purely theoretical, but this is actually going to happen over at Mars. Its largest moon Phobos orbits more quickly than a Martian day, which means that it’s drifting closer and closer to the planet. In a few million years, it’ll cross the Roche Limit, tear into a ring, and then all the pieces of the former Phobos will crash down onto Mars. We did a whole article on this.

Phobos, the larger of Mars' two moons, with the Stickney crater seen on the right side. Credit: HiRISE, MRO, LPL (U. Arizona), NASA
Phobos will eventually break apart from reaching the Roche limit, which will leave Deimos as Mars’ only moon. Credit: HiRISE, MRO, LPL (U. Arizona), NASA

Now you might be wondering, wait a second. I’m a separate object from the Earth, why don’t I get torn apart since I’m definitely within the Earth’s Roche Limit.

You do have gravity holding you together, but it’s insignificant compared to the chemical bonds holding you together. This is why physicists consider gravity to actually be a pretty weak force compared to all the other forces of the Universe.

You’d need to go somewhere with really intense gravity, like a black hole, for the Roche Limit to overcome the forces holding you together.

So that’s it. Bring the Moon within 9,500 kilometers or so and it would no longer be a Moon. It would be torn apart into a ring, a Halo ring, if you will, capable of wiping out all life on a planet infected by the flood. All the moons we see in the Solar System are are least at the Roche Limit or beyond, otherwise they would have broken up long ago… and probably did.

Time For NASA To Double Down On Journey To Mars

Since the Authorization Act of 2010, NASA has been pushing ahead with the goal of sending astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. The latter part of this goal has been the subject of much attention in recent years, and for good reason. Sending crewed missions to the Red Planet would be the single-greatest initiative undertaken since the Apollo era, and the rewards equally great.

However, with the scheduled date for a mission approaching, and the upcoming presidential election, NASA is finding itself under pressure to show that they are making headway. Despite progress being made with both the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, there are lingering issues which need to be worked out before NASA can mount its historic mission to Mars.

One of the biggest issues is that of assigned launched missions that will ensure that the SLS is tested many times before a crewed mission to Mars is mounted. So far, NASA has produced some general plans as part of it’s “Journey to Mars“, an important part of which is the use of the SLS and Orion spacecraft to send a crew beyond low-Earth orbit and explore a near-Earth asteroid by 2025.

NASA's Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL
NASA’s Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL

This plan is not only intended to provide their astronauts with experience working beyond LEO, but to test the SLS and Orion’s capabilities, not to mention some vital systems – such as Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), which will be used to send cargo missions to Mars. Another major step is  Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), the first planned flight of the SLS and the second uncrewed test flight of the Orion spacecraft (which will take place on September 30th, 2018).

However, beyond this, NASA has only one other mission on the books, which is Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2). This mission will involve the crew performing a practice flyby of a captured asteroid in lunar orbit, and which is scheduled for launch in 2023. This will be the first crewed test of the Orion spacecraft, and also the first time American astronauts have left low-Earth orbit since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

While significant, these mission remain the only two assigned flights for the SLS and Orion. Beyond these, dozens more have been proposed as part of NASA’s three phase plan to reach Mars. For instance, between 2018 and the 2030s, NASA would be responsible for launching a total of 32 missions in order to send the necessary hardware to near-Mars space before making crewed landings on Phobos and then to Mars.

In accordance with the “Evolvable Mars Campaign” – which was presented last year by NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) – Phase One (the “Earth Reliant” phase) of this plan would involve two launches in 2028, which would be responsible for transporting a habitation module, an SEP module, and a exploration vehicle to cis-lunar space.

This would be followed by two SLS flights in 2029, bringing the Trans-Earth Injection (TEI) stage to cis-lunar space, followed by a crew to perform the final checks on the Phobos Hab. By 2030, Phase Two (known as the “Proving Ground” phase) would begin with the last elements – the Earth Orbit Insertion (EOI) stage and taxi elements – being launched to cis-lunar orbit, and then all the equipment being sent to near-Mars space for pre-deployment.

By 2031, two more SLS missions would take place, where a Martian Hab would be launched, followed in 2032 by the launches of the Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI) and Trans-Mars Injection (TMI) stages. By 2033, Phase Three (the “Earth Independent” phase) would begin, where the Phobos crew would be transported to the Transit Hab, followed by the final crewed mission to the Martian surface.

Accomplishing all of this would require that NASA commit to making regular launches over the next few years. Such was the feeling of Bill Gerstenmaier – NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations – who recently indicated that NASA will need to mount launches at least once a year to establish a “launch cadence” with the SLS.

Mission proposals of this kind were also discussed at the recent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) meeting – which meets annually to discuss matters relating to NASA’s safety performance. During the course of the meeting, Bill Hill – the Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development (ESD) in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) – provided an overview of the latest developments in NASA’s planned mission.

The many faces of Mars inner moon, Phobos (Credit: NASA)
The many faces of Mars inner moon, Phobos. Credit: NASA

By and large, the meeting focused on possible concepts for the Mars mission, which included using SEP and chemical propellants for sending hardware to cis-lunar space and near-Mars space, in advance of a mission to Phobos and the Martian surface. Two scenarios were proposed that would rely to these methods to varying extents, both of which called for a total of 32 SLS launches.

However, the outcome of this meeting seemed to indicate that NASA is still thinking over its long-term options and has not yet committed to anything beyond the mission to a near-Earth asteroid. For instance, NASA has indicated that it is laying the groundwork for Phase One of the Mars mission, which calls for flight testing to cis-lunar space.

However, according to Hill, NASA is currently engaged in “Phase 0” of the three phase plan, which involves the use of the ISS to test crew health via long duration space flight. In addition, there are currently no plans for developing Phases Two and Three of the mission. Other problems, such as the Orion spacecraft’s heatshield – which is currently incapable of withstanding the speed of reentry coming all the way from Mar – have yet to be resolved.

Another major issue is that of funding. Thanks to the Obama administration and the passage of the Authorization Act of 2010, NASA has been able to take several crucial steps towards developing their plan for a mission to Mars. However, in order to take things to the next level, the US government will need to show a serious commitment to ensuring that all aspects of the plan get the funding they need.

And given that it is an election year, the budget environment may be changing in the near future. As such, now is the time for the agency to demonstrate that it is fully committed to every phase of its plan to puts boots on the ground of Mars.

On the other hand, NASA has taken some very positive strides in the past six years, and one cannot deny that they are serious about making the mission happen in the time frame it has provided. They are also on track when it comes to proving key concepts and technology.

In the coming years, with flight tests of the SLS and crewed tests of the Orion, they will be even further along. And given the support of both the federal government and the private sector, nothing should stand in the way of human boots touching red soil by the 2030s.

Artist's concept image of a boot print on the moon and on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s concept image of a boot print on the moon and on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Further Reading: NASA

How Many Moons Does Mars Have?

Many of the planets in our Solar System have a system of moons. But among the rocky planets that make up the inner Solar System, having moons is a privilege enjoyed only by two planets: Earth and Mars. And for these two planets, it is a rather limited privilege compared to gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn which each have several dozen moons.

Whereas Earth has only one satellite (aka. the Moon), Mars has two small moons in orbit around it: Phobos and Deimos. And whereas the vast majority of moons in our Solar System are large enough to become round spheres similar to our own Moon, Phobos and Deimos are asteroid-sized and misshapen in appearance.

Continue reading “How Many Moons Does Mars Have?”

Mars’ Moon Phobos Undergoing ‘Structural Failure’

We’ve said it before: Mars’ moon Phobos is doomed. But a new study indicates it might be worse than we thought.

One of the most striking features we see on images of Phobos is the parallel sets of grooves on the moon’s surface. They were originally thought to be fractures caused by an impact long ago. But scientists now say the grooves are early signs of the structural failure that will ultimately destroy this moon.

“We think that Phobos has already started to fail, and the first sign of this failure is the production of these grooves,” said Terry Hurford, from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Why is Phobos falling apart?

Two words: tidal forces.

Phobos orbits closer to its planet than any moon in the Solar System. As it orbits just 6,000 km (3,700 miles) above Mars, and the planet’s gravity is pulling Phobos in closer and closer; it is also tearing Phobos apart. Scientists estimate the ultimate destruction of this tiny moon (22 kilometers/13.5-miles in diameter) might take place in about 30 to 50 million years.

It only take about 7.5 hours for Phobos to complete an orbit around the planet, while Mars takes almost 25 hours to complete one rotation on its axis. So Phobos travels three times around the planet for every Martian day. And as Fraser explains in this video, this is a problem.

Mars’ gravity is pulling in Phobos closer by about 2 meters (6.6 feet) every hundred years. The orbit will get lower and lower until it reaches a level known as the Roche Limit. This is the point where the tidal forces between the two sides of the moon are so different that it gets torn apart.

Hurford and his colleagues, who presented their latest findings at the annual Meeting of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society this week, also delivered other bad news about the interior of Phobos – which could ultimately speed up the demise of the moon. Phobos’ insides are likely to be just a big pile of rubble — barely holding together — surrounded by a layer of powdery regolith about 100 meters (330 feet) thick.

“The funny thing about the result is that it shows Phobos has a kind of mildly cohesive outer fabric,” said Erik Asphaug of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University in Tempe and a co-investigator on the study. “This makes sense when you think about powdery materials in microgravity, but it’s quite non-intuitive.”

Phobos' Stickney Crater
Phobos’ Stickney Crater. Credit: NASA.

Phobos’ grooves have long been an issue up for debate. As mentioned previously, one idea is that the grooves were associated with the impact that formed Stickney Crater, a big 10 km-wide crater that dominates one side of Phobos. However, scientists eventually determined that the grooves don’t radiate outward from the crater itself but from a focal point nearby. Another idea is they came from Phobos moving through streams of debris thrown up from impacts 6,000 km away on the surface of Mars, with each ‘family’ of grooves corresponding to a different impact event.

But new modeling by Hurford and his team supports the idea that the grooves are more like “stretch marks” that occur when Phobos gets deformed by tidal forces.

The team said that stress fractures predicted by their model coincide with the grooves seen in images of Phobos. This explanation also fits with the observation that some grooves are younger than others, which would be the case if the process that creates them is ongoing.

Huford also said the same fate may await Neptune’s moon Triton, which is also slowly falling inward and has a similarly fractured surface. The work also has implications for extrasolar planets, according to researchers.

“We can’t image those distant planets to see what’s going on, but this work can help us understand those systems, because any kind of planet falling into its host star could get torn apart in the same way,” said Hurford.

Here’s a video showing Mars Express images of Phobos over the last 10 years. The images show the grooves running across the small moon:

Source: NASA

How Could We Destroy the Moon?

What would it take to destroy our moon, and eliminate the enemy of stellar astronomy for all time?

In the immortal words of Mr. Burns, “ever since the beginning of time, man has wished to destroy the Sun.” Your days are numbered, Sun.

But supervillains, being the practical folks they are, know that a more worthy goal would be to destroy the Moon, or at least deface it horribly. Nothing wrecks a beautiful night sky like that hideous pockmarked spotlight. What would it take to destroy it and eliminate the enemy of stellar astronomy for all time?

Crack out your Acme brand blueprint paper and white pencils, it’s Wile E. Coyote time.

The energy it takes to dismantle a gravitationally held object is known as its binding energy, we talked about it in a Death Star episode and inventive ways to overcome it.

For example, the binding energy of the Earth is 2.2 x 10^32 joules. It’s a lot. The binding energy of a smaller object, like our Moon is a tidy little 1.2 x 10^29 joules. It takes about 1800 times more energy to destroy the Earth than it takes to destroy the Moon.

It’s 1800 times easier. That’s downright doable, isn’t it? That’s almost 2000 times easier. Which, on the scale of easy to less easy, is definitely closer to easy.

Take the event that created the Caloris Basin on Mercury. It’s a crater, 1,500 km across. Astronomers think that a big fat asteroid, a fatsteroid(?) around 100 km in diameter crashed into Mercury billions of years ago. This event released 1.3 x 10^26 joules of energy, carving out this giant pit. It’s a thousandth of the binding energy of the Moon. We’ll need something more.

Our Sun produces 3.8 x 10^26 joules of energy every second, the equivalent of about a billion hydrogen bombs. If you directed the full power of the Sun at the Moon for 15 minutes, it’d tear apart.

That’s quite a superweapon you’ve got there, perhaps you’ll want to mount that on a space station and take it for a cruise through a galaxy far far away?

If that scene took that long, we’d have fallen asleep. It’s as if millions of voices gradually became a little hoarse from crying out for a quarter of an hour. There’s another way you could tear the Moon apart that doesn’t require an astral gate accident: gravity.

Astronomers use the Roche Limit to calculate how close an object – like a moon – can orbit another object – like a planet.

This is the point where the difference between the tidal forces on the “front” and “backside” are large enough that the object is torn apart, and if this sounds familiar you might want to look up “spaghettification”.

Spaghettification. Credit: Streeter
Spaghettification. Credit: Streeter

This is all based on the radius of the planet and the density of the planet and moon. If the Moon got close enough to the Earth, around 18,000 km, it would pull apart and be shredded into a beautiful ring.

And then the objects in the ring would enter the Earth’s atmosphere and rain down beautiful destruction for thousands of years.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending your position in this “Die Moon, Die” discussion, the Moon is drifting away from the Earth. It’ll never be closer than it is right now, at almost 400,000 km, without a little nudge.

Phobos, the largest moon orbiting Mars is slowly approaching the planet, and astronomers think it’ll reach the Roche Limit in the next few million years.

It turns out that if we really want to destroy the Moon, we’ll need to destroy all life on Earth as well.

Now we know your new supervillain project, what’s your supervillain name? Tell us your handle in the comments below.

Dazzling Gallery From India’s MOM Mars Orbiter Camera

Spectacular 3D view of Arsia Mons, a huge volcano on Mars, taken by camera on India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Credit: ISRO
Story updated with more details and imagery[/caption]

India’s first ever robotic explorer to the Red Planet, the Mars Orbiter Mission, more affectionately known as MOM, has captured an absolutely dazzling array of images of the fourth rock from the Sun.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s space agency, has recently published a beautiful gallery of images featuring a variety of picturesque Martian canyons, volcanoes, craters, moons and more.

We’ve gathered a collection here of MOM’s newest imagery snapped by the probes Mars Color Camera (MCC) for the enjoyment of Martian fans worldwide.

The spectacular 3D view of the Arsia Mons volcano, shown above, was “created by draping the MCC image on topography of the region derived from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), one of five instruments on board NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft.

The Arsia Mons image was taken from Mars orbit on 1 April 2015 at a spatial resolution of 556 meters from an altitude of 10707 km. Volcanic deposits can be seen located at the flanks of the Mons, according to ISRO.

The view of Pital crater below was released in late May and taken on 23 April 2015. Pital is a 40 km wide impact crater located in the Ophir Planum region of Mars and the image shows a chain of small impact craters. It is located in the eastern part of Valles Marineris region, says an ISRO description. MCC took the image from an altitude of 808 km.

Pital crater is an impact crater located in Ophir Planum region of Mars, which is located in the eastern part of Valles Marineris region. This  image is taken by Mars Color Camera (MCC) on 23-04-2015 at a spatial resolution of  ~42 m from an altitude of 808 km. Credit: ISRO
Pital crater is an impact crater located in Ophir Planum region of Mars, which is located in the eastern part of Valles Marineris region. This image is taken by Mars Color Camera (MCC) on 23-04-2015 at a spatial resolution of ~42 m from an altitude of 808 km. Credit: ISRO

It is an odd shaped crater, neither circular nor elliptical in shape, possibly due to “regional fracture in the W-E trending fracture zone.”

A trio of images, including one in stunning 3D, shows various portions of Valles Marineris, the largest known canyon in the Solar System.

Three dimensional view of Valles Marineris center portion from India’s MOM Mars Mission.   Credit: ISRO
Three dimensional view of Valles Marineris center portion from India’s MOM Mars Mission. Credit: ISRO

Valles Marineris stretches over 4,000 km (2,500 mi) across the Red Planet , is as much as 600 km wide and measures as much as 7 kilometers (4 mi) deep.

Valles Marineris from India’s Mars Mission.   Credit: ISRO
Valles Marineris from India’s Mars Mission. Credit: ISRO

For context here’s a previously taken global image of the red planet from MOM showing Valles Marinaris and Arsia Mons, which belongs to the Tharsis Bulge trio of shield volcanoes. They are both near the Martian equator.

Olympus Mons, Tharsis Bulge trio of volcanoes and Valles Marineris from ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission. Note the clouds and south polar ice cap.   Credit: ISRO
Olympus Mons, Tharsis Bulge trio of volcanoes and Valles Marineris from ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission. Note the clouds and south polar ice cap. Credit: ISRO

Valles Marineris is often called the “Grand Canyon of Mars.” It spans about as wide as the entire United States.

A gorgeous view of Phobos, the largest of Mars’ two tiny moons, silhouetted against the surface is shown below.

Phobos, one of the two natural satellites of Mars silhouetted against the Martian surface.  Credit: ISRO
Phobos, one of the two natural satellites of Mars silhouetted against the Martian surface. Credit: ISRO

MOM’s goal is to study Mars atmosphere, surface environments, morphology, and mineralogy with a 15 kg (33 lb) suite of five indigenously built science instruments. It is also sniffing for methane, a potential marker for biological activity.

MOM is India’s first deep space voyager to explore beyond the confines of her home planets influence and successfully arrived at the Red Planet after the “history creating” orbital insertion maneuver on Sept. 23/24, 2014 following a ten month journey from Earth.
MOM swoops around Mars in a highly elliptical orbit whose nearest point to the planet (periapsis) is at about 421 km and farthest point (apoapsis) at about 76,000 km, according to ISRO.

It takes MOM about 3.2 Earth days or 72 hours to orbit the Red Planet.

Higher resolution view of a portion of Valles Marineris canyon from India’s MOM Mars Mission.   Credit: ISRO
Higher resolution view of a portion of Valles Marineris canyon from India’s MOM Mars Mission. Credit: ISRO

MOM was launched on Nov. 5, 2013 from India’s spaceport at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, atop the nations indigenous four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) which placed the probe into its initial Earth parking orbit.

The $73 million MOM mission was expected to last at least six months. In March, ISRO extended the mission duration for another six months since its healthy, the five science instruments are operating fine and it has sufficient fuel reserves.

And with a communications blackout between Mars and Earth imminent as a result of natures solar conjunction, it’s the perfect time to catch up on all things Martian.

Solar conjunctions occur periodically between Mars and Earth about every 26 months, when the two planets line up basically in a straight line geometry with the sun in between as the two planets travel in their sun-centered orbits.

Since Mars will be located behind the Sun for most of June, communications with all the Terran spacecraft at the planet is diminished to nonexistent.

“MOM faces a communication outage during June 8-25,” according to The Hindu.

Normal science operations resume thereafter.

“Fuel on the spacecraft is not an issue,” ISRO Satellite Centre Director M. Annadurai told The Hindu.

Image of Tyrrhenus Mons in Hesperia Planum region taken by Mars Color Camera (MCC) on 25-02-2015 at a spatial resolution of 166m from an altitude of 3192km.  Tyrrhenus Mons is an ancient martian volcano and image shows its timeworn gullies and wind streaks.  Credit: ISRO
Image of Tyrrhenus Mons in Hesperia Planum region taken by Mars Color Camera (MCC) on 25-02-2015 at a spatial resolution of 166m from an altitude of 3192km. Tyrrhenus Mons is an ancient martian volcano and image shows its timeworn gullies and wind streaks. Credit: ISRO

Including MOM, Earth’s invasion fleet at the Red Planet numbers a total of seven spacecraft comprising five orbiters from NASA, ESA and ISRO as well as the sister pair of mobile surface rovers from NASA – Curiosity and Opportunity.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Weekly Space Hangout – May 15, 2015: Finding, Studying and Visiting Other Worlds!

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Jolene Creighton (@jolene723 /
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein /
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz /
Morgan Rehnberg ( / @MorganRehnberg )
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – May 15, 2015: Finding, Studying and Visiting Other Worlds!”