A space probe has passed by a moon from Mars to peek inside

The long-standing mystery about the origin of Mars’ moons may be a step closer to a solution.

A space probe has reached a distance of tens of kilometers from the satellite’s two largest brothers to capture data about what lies beneath its crater-ridden surface.

“Whether the two young Mars moons were captured asteroids or were made of material torn from Mars during the collision is an open question,” says astronomer Colin Wilson of the European Space Agency (ESA). “Their appearance suggests they were asteroids, but the way they orbit Mars can be said otherwise.”

Named after the ancient Greek god of fear and panic, Phobos is the largest of the two moons with a diameter of 22.2 kilometers (13.8 miles), and orbits Mars at an average distance of about 6,000 kilometers from the surface.

Deimos, after the Greek god of terror and terror, is only 12.6 kilometers (7.8 miles) wide, with an average orbital distance of about 20,000 kilometers from Mars.

Both are rather strange creatures, unlike our companion in many ways. There are also some interesting differences between the two.

As Deimos moves away and may one day escape Mars altogether, Phobos heads toward Mars in a decaying orbit that is shrinking 1.8 cm (0.7 in) each year, a journey that you could watch as it ruptures to form a ring over the next hundred. million years or so.

It is also not clear where they come from. Numerous convincing evidence suggests that our moon separated from Earth in a giant collision, but Mars and its moons, millions of kilometers away, are not easy to study.

Synthetically speaking, Phobos and Deimos appear to be quite similar, suggesting that they may be from the same source; This composition is also similar to the group of asteroids. But they also have similar orbits that are arranged roughly circular and adhere closely to the equator of Mars, a property not typical of captured asteroids.

One way to search for answers is to look under the hood, so to speak – to see what lies beneath the surface of the moons. So, the European Space Agency sent its Mars Express orbiter to fly Phobos close to the potato-like satellite, a distance of 83 kilometers (about 51 miles). For context, the Kerman Line that separates Earth’s atmosphere from interplanetary space is located at an altitude of about 100 kilometers. A flight only 83 kilometers away close.

“We didn’t know if this was possible,” says Simon Wood, Mars Express flight controller, of the European Space Agency. “The team tested a few variations of the software, with the successful final modifications uploaded to the spacecraft just hours before the flight.”

Data acquired by MARSIS during the Phobos flight in September 2022. (European Space Agency)

The flight itself took place towards the end of September. Objective: To use an instrument called the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) to probe beneath the surface of Phobos.

This is a radar instrument that sends low-frequency radio waves to Mars; The way these waves bounce off different materials beneath the surface allows scientists to see what might be out there.

This is how scientists came up with the possibility of liquid water lakes (or mudflats, igneous rock deposits, or layers of rock and ice) buried beneath Mars’ south polar ice cap. Now, the tool is set to demystify Phobos’ internal structure.

“We are still at an early stage of our analysis,” says astronomer Andrea Sechetti of the National Institute of Astrophysics in Italy, which directs MARSIS. “But we have already seen potential signs of previously unknown features below the moon Surface appearance. We are excited to see the role MARSIS may play in finally solving the mystery surrounding Phobos’ origin.”

Over the next few years, Mars Express will fly closer to the young, lumpy moon. From 2023 to 2025, the team hopes that the probe will pass, within 40 kilometers of the surface of Phobos. This will provide opportunities to collect more data about its internal structure.

In addition, space agencies around the world are collaborating on the Mars lunar exploration mission. This ambitious project aims to send a probe to both Phobos and Deimos and study them in detail – collecting a sample of Phobos and returning it to Earth for detailed analysis.

Perhaps then we will finally have an answer as to where two small Mars spheres were born.

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