Japan is moving forward with plans to make a landing of its spacecraft on Phobos, one of Mars’ moons. If successful, Japan will become the first country to touch down on the surface of the Martian moon and possibly the first round-trip mission to the Mars system.
JAXA, space agency of Japan, declared today that the Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) project had officially shifted ahead into the development phase. This implies that the team is going to begin working on the hardware and software for the mission before the planned launch in 2024.
MMX is going to take off sometime in 2024 and reach to Mars around 2025. It is going to spend the coming three years studying and surveying both the moons of Mars, Deimos and Phobos, making detailed maps of their surfaces. During the course, MMX will also land on Phobos and fetch a sample, digging at least two centimeters into the surface. The team also is planning to integrate a rover to move around on the surface, the same as to the one launched on an asteroid in 2018. The spacecraft is going to be fitted with 11 instruments taking detailed and precise measurements during the entire mission. If everything goes well, the mission is going to return to Earth with the sample from Phobos by 2029.
Phobos is a fascinating target for planetary scientists. Researchers are still not sure if Phobos and Deimos are asteroids held in the gravity of Mars or if they were created after something massive slammed into the planet. The latest mission could help answer those questions.
A hope of a successful mission
People are also interested in Phobos as a stepping stone for future human missions to Mars. “Humans can realistically explore the surfaces of only a few objects and Phobos and Deimos are on that list,” Jim Green, NASA chief scientist, said in the JAXA declaration. “Their position orbiting about Mars may make them a prime target for humans to visit first before reaching the surface of the Red Planet, but that will only be possible after the results of the MMX mission have been completed.”
NASA will be providing two instruments to the MMX mission: one of them will be able to analyze elements on the moon’s surface and a “pneumatic sampling device.” NASA researchers have been talking about the missions to Phobos for years, consisting of crewed missions. A paper from a workshop held in 2007 pointed out to the possibility and hope of human missions to the Martian moons “will help get and keep the Humans to Mars ball rolling earlier than otherwise possible.”
MMX could help get that ball rolling again. Hopefully, it is going to be more successful than its ancestors. In 1988, the Soviet spacecraft Phobos 2 was poised to send both a lander and rover to the surface of the moon. Unfortunately, its computer faced a malfunction just before it was scheduled to release its explorers, and the mission has marked a failure. The last attempt to land anything on Phobos didn’t succeed: the Phobos-Grunt mission from Russia launched in 2011 however didn’t manage to make it past Earth orbit. Instead, it crashed back into the Pacific in 2012.
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