Mars' Electric Moon May Spell Havoc for Future Missions

Tuesday, 24 October 2017 - 10:49AM
Tuesday, 24 October 2017 - 10:49AM
Mars' Electric Moon May Spell Havoc for Future Missions
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Image Credit: YouTube

Mars has never been an easy destination, and exploring the Red Planet may be even harder than previously thought, according to a new report.

The planet's harsh radiation, chilly climate, and dangerous solar winds already make it a difficult place to survive for humans - even for Matt Damon. This hasn't stopped us from wanting to explore it, but it certainly has made us think twice about the best way to do so.

Now, new research suggests that there may be yet another challenge to fully exploring Mars and its two small moons. According to a study published this month in the academic journal Advances in Space Research, if we want to visit the Martian moon of Phobos, they may need to contend with the lunar body's thick static charge.

Exploring what landing on Phobos might be like, either for a rover or a human crew, scientists ran a simulation examining how the moon is affected by Mars' atmosphere.

Phobos moves quickly around the planet, completing an orbit in just eight hours, and does so in a very low orbit. As such, part of Phobos' journey involves passing through solar winds that are filled with charged ions and electrons, which collect in the wake of Phobos' orbit to charge part of the moon with static electricity.

While the charge held by the moon isn't enough to do damage to a human being who might land on its surface, it's enough to scramble or interfere with electrical equipment and radio signals, making it far more difficult than previously thought to land on Phobos.

According to William Farrell of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center:

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"We found that astronauts or rovers could accumulate significant electric charges when traversing the night side of Phobos – the side facing Mars during the Martian day. While we don't expect these charges to be large enough to injure an astronaut, they are potentially large enough to affect sensitive equipment, so we would need to design spacesuits and equipment that minimizes any charging hazard."
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This isn't to say that exploring Mars' moon is impossible - it just might not be the useful port of call that astronauts previously thought. Instead of setting up a base in orbit on a naturally occurring moon, we're probably better off creating an artificial orbiting "base camp" similar to that designed by Lockheed Martin.

As for actually getting anywhere on Phobos, there is plenty of hard-wearing, almost Batmobile-esque equipment that's being designed to endure Mars' harsh weather conditions and dust storms. It's possible to design something that could work around the extra challenge that static charge will create for exploring Phobos, as long as engineers are interested in taking on a challenge.

Considering that the moon is also in danger of collapsing under its own weight, though, it might be wise not to risk too much expensive and heavy equipment in an attempt to get a better look at an electric rock.

Mars' Electric Moon Phobos Harm Future Missions