Japan’s Martian Moon exploration mission will return a sample of the Phobos moon from Mars


Mars is kept company by two cratered moons: an inner moon named Phobos and an outer moon named Deimos. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona

The role of the Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission in the new era of Martian life exploration.

  • The surface of the Martian moon, Phobos, is covered with a variety of materials that have been excavated and ejected by numerous meteorite impacts all over the surface of ">March.
  • The Mars Sample Return (MSR) led by ">Nasa– ESA will return a large amount of Martian material collected in Jezero Crater to the main body of Mars itself. Conversely, the JAXAThe Martian Moons Exploration Mission (MMX) led by Martian Moons will collect a variety of Martian materials from the Martian moon, Phobos.
  • The collaboration between MSR and MMX will improve the ability to study traces of Martian life from multiple angles and accelerate the dawn of the new era of Mars exploration in the 2020s.

How did the Earth become an inhabited world? Is there life beyond that on Earth? These are questions that everyone once asked themselves and have now become a major focus for planetary exploration. “However, the answer may not be found by looking only at Earth,” says Dr. HYODO Ryuki, International Top Young Fellow (ITYF) at the Institute for Space and Astronautical Sciences (ISAS) and the study’s first author.

While the surface of Mars is dry today, it is believed that there was an ocean on the surface of the Red Planet until about 3.5 billion years ago. Space agencies around the world are therefore looking to Mars for missions in the 2020s. “The strategic idea is that to find traces of life beyond Earth, we should first look to Mars, because the The environment there was once similar to that of Earth, ”Hyodo explains.

HiRISE Camera by Phobos

Phobos photographed by HiRISE. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona

Executed jointly by NASA and ESA, the “Mars Sample Return (MSR)” project plans to collect a large quantity of soil samples taken from the Jezero crater and return them to Earth. The NASA rover, which landed safely on Mars in February 2020, is responsible for collecting samples and storing the material in containers for transport. The containers are to be retrieved from the surface of Mars by a retrieval system scheduled for a future launch with the first return from Earth scheduled for 2031.

Jezero Crater is believed to be the location of a large lake that existed billions of years ago. Minerals such as clays suggesting the existence of water have been discovered, suggesting that traces of life may remain. NASA-ESA therefore decided to scrutinize this area. However, in the case of celestial bodies such as Earth and Mars, we cannot assume that knowledge of the entire planet can be informed on the basis of a single location.

Schematic illustration of the transport of Martian material

Schematic illustration of the transport of Martian material. Countless small meteorite impacts occur at random locations on Mars, digging up Martian surface material. As the Martian moon, Phobos, orbits close to the planet, matter can be ejected and transported from Mars to Phobos without the need for a large impact that would melt matter. This may mean that traces of ancient fossilized microorganisms and biomarkers, and / or dead remains and DNA fragments of Martian life that existed until recently have accumulated on Phobos. Evacuated Martian material can on rare occasions be ejected and reach Earth, becoming a Martian meteorite. However, a large impact with Mars is required to eject a meteorite capable of reaching Earth. Martian meteorites therefore do not contain traces of Martian life (all found on Earth are in fact igneous rocks formed by the cooling and solidification of magma). Credit: JAXA

This has resulted in new expectations placed on the Martian moon’s surface material, Phobos. Computer simulations have revealed that the surface of Phobos is laden with Martian material excavated from countless small meteorite impacts that randomly occurred on the surface of Mars. “Particularly handy for the Mars Moon Exploration mission, which will target Phobos for sample return, is that the moon’s near orbit to Mars means that excavated Martian material can reach Phobos without a shocked excavation event.” strong, which would melt the material, ”Hyodo explains. “In other words, traces of Martian life and biomarkers could be transported to Phobos without being destroyed.”

The JAXA MMX mission is expected to launch in 2024 JFY. The MMX spacecraft aims to land on Phobos and collect a total of 10g or more of surface material samples from at least two different locations. (For the Hayabusa2 mission, the pre-launch target was 0.1g, so the MMX project is aiming for a sample that is 100 times larger.)

After Hayabusa2, the main objective of the MMX project is to acquire primordial matter from the solar system with a returned sample of a small celestial body. If Phobos is from a D-type asteroid captured by gravity from Mars (supporting observational data shows the moon’s surface resembles that of a D-type asteroid), we would expect what the mission collects primordial materials such as organic matter, which are considered abundant on D-type asteroids. Alternatively, if Phobos was formed from fragments of a giant impact with ancient Mars (a large basin in the Martian northern hemisphere could be proof of this), Phobos was formed from a mixture of ancient matter from Mars and that of the colliding celestial object. The returned sample from Phobos in this case would signify the acquisition of ancient Martian material.

Regardless of the origin of Phobos, surface material from Mars has been deposited on the surface of Phobos, after the Martian surface was excavated in the aforementioned multitude of impacts from small meteorites. Since the MMX spacecraft is due to return to Earth in 2029, the return of the Martian sphere sample carried by MMX is expected to be earlier than that of MSR. That is, JAXA is targeting with MMX the world’s first sample return of a variety of Martian surface materials that could potentially contain traces of Martian life and biomarkers, as well as materials from the moon. Martian related to the origin of Phobos.

Dr HYODO Ryuki and Professor USUI Tomohiro from the JAXA Institute for Space and Astronautical Sciences (ISAS), with the help of members of the MSR and MMX science teams, summarized and compared the possibilities of exploring life in the Martian sphere. which can be achieved with MSR and MMX. This perspective article was published by Science Magazine.

“While MSR is limited to exploring the Jezero Crater, the detailed examination has the potential to uncover even current life if it exists. On the other hand, traces of ancient microorganisms and fossilized biomarkers, dead remains of recent life, and possible DNA fragments could be found in the variety of Martian materials on Phobos delivered from all over Mars and returned by MMX, ”Hyodo explains.

The results of this research will not affect the planetary protection classification of the MMX mission. Even if microorganisms were present on the surface of Mars, sterilization by collision or radiation would have taken place. The probability of a microorganism living in the Martian moon samples returned to Earth by the MMX project remains below a million to one, as previously estimated. “Such organisms can therefore exist as ‘safe’ relics, where ‘safe’ is not synonymous with ‘boring’ or ‘worthless’ but retains high scientific value,” Hyodo adds. What’s more, the latest research has suggested that the expected amount of samples from Mars on the surface of Phobos is 10 to 100 times greater than conventional estimates.

With the meaning of both the MSR and MMX missions being clear, the Flagship Missions are working together to get a clue as to the answer to the question: is there anyone beyond Earth? “In the 2020s, the explorations of Martian life by several space agencies are entering a new era and JAXA’s MMX mission has an important role to play,” Hyodo concludes.

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