Japan’s mission to Mars, Phobos, to bring home a sample by 2029


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

The Japanese space agency (JAXA) is preparing for his Martian Moon Exploration Mission (MMX), with plans to have a sample of ">MarchThe moon Phobos returns to Earth by 2029. Mission scientists say they hope to find clues to the origins of the two moons on Mars, as well as to Mars itself, and possibly even traces of life. past.

“We believe the Martian moon, Phobos, is laden with material extracted from Mars during meteorite impacts,” the MMX team said. said on Twitter. “By collecting this sample of Phobos, MMX will help investigate traces of Martian life and the new era of Martian habitability exploration in the 2020s will begin.”

MMX currently has a scheduled launch in 2024, with the spacecraft reaching the Martian system by 2025, about a year after leaving Earth. Current plans for the mission include an orbiter, a lander that lands on Phobos with sample collection and return capability, and possibly even a rover.

A recently released preview of the MMX mission. Credit: JAXA

The orbiter will be placed in a so-called quasi-satellite orbit (QSO) around Phobos, to collect scientific data. After orbital and in situ observations, and sample collection, the lander will take off back to Earth, taking the collected material sample to Phobos. Current plans are for the lander to collect 10 grams (0.35 ounces) of soil. At a press briefing this week, and reported by The Associated Press, JAXA scientists said about 0.1% of the surface soil on Phobos came from Mars, and 10 grams could contain around 30 granules, depending on the consistency of the soil.

The team says their exploration of Martian moons will help improve technology for future exploration of planets and satellites. They say their mission will contribute to advances, for example, in the technology required to fly back and forth between Earth and Mars, improved sampling techniques, and optimal communication technology using the Deep Space Network’s ground stations.

The objectives of the MMX mission are:

  • Determine whether the Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos, are captured asteroids or fragments that merged after a giant impact with Mars, and gain new insight into the process of formation of Mars and terrestrial planets.
  • Clarify the mechanisms controlling the evolution of the surface of Martian moons and Mars, and acquire new knowledge about the history of the Martian sphere, including that of the Martian moons.
Schematic illustration of the transport of Martian material

MMX infographic. Credit: JAXA / NASA

Sending a mission to the moons of Mars has long been on the wish list of mission planners and space enthusiasts, and in recent years, JAXA engineers and scientists have been working on the development of such a mission.

Many scientists say that studying and landing on the moons of Mars would be the best thing to do before going to Mars itself. Phobos and Deimos were considered places of a possible human base that would allow easier access to Mars than going directly to the red planet, especially for the first human missions to the Martian system.

“Humans can realistically explore the surfaces of only a few objects and Phobos and Deimos are on this list,” ">Nasa Chief Scientist Jim Green said in 2020. “Their position in orbit around Mars may make them a prime target for humans before they reach the surface of the Red Planet, but that will only be possible once the results of the MMX mission have been completed. “

MMX Spaceship

Artist’s concept of the MMX spacecraft in orbital configuration, with its science instruments shown. Credit: JAXA / ISAS

The mission will have an international contribution, equipped with eleven instruments, four of which will be provided by international partners from NASA (USA), ESA (Europe), CNES (France) and DLR (Germany).

Instruments built by JAXA include a telescopic (narrow angle) camera to observe detailed terrain, the wide angle camera to identify hydrated minerals and organic matter, LIDAR laser altimeter, dust monitor and spectrum analyzer. mass, to study the charged ions around the moons, the sampling device and the sample return capsule, and a radiation environment monitor.

NASA is committed to providing a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer to examine the elements that make up Martian moons, as well as a pneumatic sampling device. CNES is building a near infrared spectrometer capable of identifying mineral composition and working with DLR to design the rover, which could explore the surface of Phobos. ESA is listed as aiding deep space communication equipment.

The quick turnaround time for returning samples from MMX would put Japan ahead of the United States and China to bring back samples from the Mars system, even if they started later, said Yasuhiro Kawakatsu, MMX project manager. , at this week’s press conference.

A new article published by the JAXA Institute for Space and Astronautics Research suggests that if Mars was once a habitable planet, with water on the surface, water could have been blown into space by gigantic Martian dust storms. They say the material MMX collects from Phobos will help confirm whether this theory might be true.

Originally published on Universe today.

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