NASA Is Building Advanced Tools for a Future Mission to Mars' Moons

Sunday, 19 November 2017 - 11:57AM
Space
Mars
NASA
Sunday, 19 November 2017 - 11:57AM
NASA Is Building Advanced Tools for a Future Mission to Mars' Moons
JAXA/NASA
With all the focus on Mars lately, from NASA's planned rover launching in 2020, to Elon Musk's claims that he can get humans to the Martian surface soon, nobody's shown much interest in the two moons that orbit the red planet.

Except for Japan. In a collaboration with NASA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is making plans to send a spacecraft to fly by Phobos and Deimos, where it'll then land on the surface of Phobos and send some moon rock and dust samples back to Earth by 2029. The whole effort is being called the Mars Moons eXploration (MMX) mission, which does indeed take some liberties with acronym rules.

As for where NASA comes in, they're developing some highly advanced tools for the MMX, the biggest of which is called the MEGANE (which is Japanese for "eyeglasses") which is currently being built at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Going off that eyeglasses analogy, the MEGANE is a set of eyes which can measure neutrons and gamma rays emitted by Phobos, allowing it to essentially "see" the the moon's elemental composition.

To give another, more sci-fi analogy, the MEGANE will give the spacecraft a sort of very specialized Predator vision. Which it'll need, because the surface of Phobos is constantly bombarded with cosmic rays and solar energy, and there's a lot to see there if you have the right equipment.



In fact, there's been some concern in the past that Phobos' presence could interfere with Martian missions due to the static charge created on the moon's surface, which is potentially capable of scrambling communications and radio signals (it's mostly coincidence that Phobos was named after the Greek god of fear).

The MMX has to be specialized enough to not only deal with Phobos' interference, but study those properties directly, which is just what MEGANE would allow it to do. And that's just one of the several instruments MMX will carry along, as the hope is that by discovering how Phobos and Deimos were created, it could provide some insights into how planets formed around our sun and other stars.

Because we don't precisely know just how Mars got its moons, although the most widely accepted explanation is that they're the result of an asteroid impact. According to Masaki Fujimoto from JAXA's Institute of Space and Aeronautical Sciences, who spoke about the many riddles of Mars' twin moons in a NASA press release

Opening quote
"With MMX, we hope to understand the origin of the moons of Mars. They may have formed as the result of a large impact on Mars, or they may be captured asteroids of a sort that may have brought a great deal of water to both Mars and Earth."
Closing quote


Once NASA finishes launching their Mars 2020 rover in the year (no points for guessing) 2020, this will likely be one of the next major ventures into Martian orbit, barring any surprises from SpaceX. So it's important that JAXA and NASA get the craft prepared to handle Phobos before then.

 
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