Science

Japan reveals plans to bring back soil samples from Mars’ MOON Phobos by 2029

Japan says it will send a spacecraft to take soil samples from the Martian moon Phobos, with the goal of returning them to Earth before the end of the decade. 

The sample-return from Phobos will be part of the wider Martian Moon Exploration (MMX) mission, run by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).  

The mission is due to launch in 2024 and will involve a spacecraft first orbiting Deimos before landing on the larger Phobos to take a sample of rock and soil. 

The £322million project will be the first to take a sample from a moon orbiting another planet and could return to the Earth as soon as 2029, JAXA confirmed.

If the mission goes to plan, the MMX probe will take off from largest of the two moons of Mars, Phobos, with 0.35 ounces of soil samples on board.

This is two years before NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) is due to return rock samples from Mars itself, currently being collected by the Perseverance rover.

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Japan says it will send a spacecraft to take soil samples from the Martian moon Phobos, with the goal of returning them to Earth before the end of the decade

The sample-return from Phobos will be part of the wider Martian Moon Exploration (MMX) mission, run by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

The sample-return from Phobos will be part of the wider Martian Moon Exploration (MMX) mission, run by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) 

WHAT IS PHOBOS LIKE AND WHAT DOES THE NAME MEAN?

Named after the mythological Greek character for panic or fear 

JAXA think Phobos may have ancient Martian soil on its surface

JAXA think Phobos may have ancient Martian soil on its surface 

  • Diameter: 13.8miles 
  • Orbital period: 7.66 hours  
  • Distance from Mars: 3,700miles 
  • Discovered: 18 August 1877 
  • Gets closer to Mars by about 6.5ft every one hundred years 
  • Tidally locked to Mars 

Mars has two moons – Phobos, with a diameter of 13.8 miles, and Deimos, with a diameter of 7.8 miles. 

JAXA wants to understand how they formed, including whether they are captured asteroids, and believes this mission will provide all the data needed to solve that puzzle and whether traces of ancient life are hidden within the soil. 

To achieve that goal, it will send a spacecraft to Martian space that will enter orbit around Mars. It will then move into a Quasi Satellite Orbit around the moons.

While there, it will photograph and collect data on the moons, before moving to Phobos where it will land, collect samples, take off and return to Earth.

Japanese scientists say asteroids that hit Mars billions of years ago may have sent ancient microbial life to its moon, that are now ‘dead remains’ in its soil.

Dr Ryuki Hydo, said: ‘Phobos is very unique in terms of its location to the host planet, Mars – Phobos orbits very close to Mars,’ at about three times Mars radius.

That is about 3,700 miles from the surface, and as a comparison, the Earth’s moon orbits about 60 times Earth’s radius, or 240,000 miles.

‘So, we thought that if Mars has ever had life on it, it could be easily transferred to Phobos without a big impact on Mars that would destroy bio-signatures within the ejecta (by impact melting/vaporisation),’ said Dr Hydo.

When the team lands the craft on Phobos’ surface, it will use a driller/core system to extract samples that will then be brought back to Earth for analysis.

The mission is due to launch in 2024 and will involve a spacecraft first orbiting Deimos before landing on the larger Phobos to take a sample of rock and soil

The mission is due to launch in 2024 and will involve a spacecraft first orbiting Deimos before landing on the larger Phobos to take a sample of rock and soil 

‘Even if microorganisms were present on the surface of Mars, sterilisation via the collision or radiation will have occurred. 

‘The probability of a living microorganism in the Martian moon samples returned to Earth by the MMX project remains less than one million to one,’ Hydo said. 

‘Here, being “dead” is very important because there is an international rule, ‘planetary protection’, defined by COSPAR. 

The £322million project will be the first to take a sample from a moon orbiting another planet and could return to the Earth as soon as 2029, JAXA confirmed

The £322million project will be the first to take a sample from a moon orbiting another planet and could return to the Earth as soon as 2029, JAXA confirmed 

If the mission goes to plan, the MMX probe will take off from largest of the two moons of Mars, Phobos with 0.35 ounces of soil samples on board

If the mission goes to plan, the MMX probe will take off from largest of the two moons of Mars, Phobos with 0.35 ounces of soil samples on board 

Asteroid impacts on the Red Planet may have thrown microscopic life to Phobos billions of years ago 

Mars’ largest moon, Phobos, may be the key to answering one of science’s greatest questions – was there life on the Red Planet?

Scientists from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) suggest asteroids that hit Mars billions of years ago may have sent ancient microbial life to its moon that are now ‘dead remains’ in its soil.

Dr. Ryuki Hydo, who is leading the research, told DailyMail.com in an email: ‘Phobos is very unique in terms of its location to the host planet, Mars — Phobos orbits very close to Mars (~3 times Mars radius).

‘As a comparison, the Earth’s moon orbits at ~60 times Earth’s radius. So, we thought that if Mars has ever had life on it, it could be easily transferred to Phobos without a big impact on Mars that would destroy bio-signatures within the ejecta (by impact melting/vaporisation).’

The research refers to the dead remains as ‘SHIGAI’ (Sterilised and Harshly Irradiated Genes, and Ancient Imprints), which includes sterilised microorganisms and potential DNA fragments.

Hydo and his team are set to launch the Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission in 2024, which will collect samples from the Phobos surface and return them to Earth five years later.

‘This international regulation says that we cannot bring back any living life-from from outside the Earth because it may be dangerous to Earth life-forms.’ 

The researchers refer to the dead remains as ‘SHIGAI’, or the Sterilised and Harshly Irradiated Genes, and Ancient Imprints.

This includes sterilised microorganisms and potential DNA fragments, and is similar to the remains being searched for on Mars by Perseverance.  

‘Understanding the origin and evolution of the planets that leads to the start of life is one of today’s key scientific goals,’ he said.

‘As Mars is thought to have once had a surface environment similar to the Earth with the potential for life, the planet is one of the most important exploration targets.’ 

The agency will be the first to land on the surface of the moons with the aim of capturing and returning soil samples – although others have considered the idea.

‘Understanding the origin and evolution of the planets that leads to the start of life’ is one of today’s key scientific goals,’ JAXA explained. 

‘As Mars is thought to have once had a surface environment similar to the Earth with the potential for life, the planet is one of the most important exploration targets.’ 

JAXA expects the Martian moons to have accumulated sediment that was ejected from Mars over billions of years.

‘Observing the moons will therefore provide information on the evolution of the Martian surface.

‘Moreover, if the moons were formed during a collision between Mars and gigantic asteroids, the moon material will reveal the original conditions on Mars during this early time, offering insights into the planet’s formation and its young environment.

‘Alternatively, if the moons are captured asteroids, their composition will help clarify the transport process of volatile components (such as water) needed for habitability.’

JAXA is working with ESA and NASA on the mission, with the other agencies contributing technologies for examining the surface of the moon

JAXA is working with ESA and NASA on the mission, with the other agencies contributing technologies for examining the surface of the moon 

This is two years before NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) is due to return rock samples from Mars itself, currently being collected by the Perseverance rover

This is two years before NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) is due to return rock samples from Mars itself, currently being collected by the Perseverance rover 

WAS MARS EVER HOME TO LIQUID WATER? 

Evidence of water on Mars dates back to the Mariner 9 mission, which arrived in 1971. It revealed clues of water erosion in river beds and canyons as well as weather fronts and fogs.

Viking orbiters that followed caused a revolution in our ideas about water on Mars by showing how floods broke through dams and carved deep valleys.

Mars is currently in the middle of an ice age, and before this study, scientists believed liquid water could not exist on its surface.

In June 2013, Curiosity found powerful evidence that water good enough to drink once flowed on Mars.

In September of the same year, the first scoop of soil analysed by Curiosity revealed that fine materials on the surface of the planet contain two per cent water by weight.

In 2017, Scientists provided the best estimates for water on Mars, claiming it once had more liquid H2O than the Arctic Ocean – and the planet kept these oceans for more than 1.5 billion years.

The findings suggest there was ample time and water for life on Mars to thrive, but over the last 3.7 billion years the red planet has lost 87 per cent of its water – leaving it barren and dry. 

They won’t just collect and return samples though, JAXA also plans to perform a number of remote sensing operations of Mars and its moons.

Using infrared light you can see that the surface of Phobos is not uniform, which suggests it has materials on it that may have come from Mars itself, the team said.

These samples will be compared to those gathered from the surface of Mars by NASA, ESA and even the Chinese space agency which is also working on a future sample return mission for the 2030s. 

Perseverance, nicknamed Percy, landed on Mars on February 18, following a 239-million-mile journey, before spending the first few months helping the Ingenuity helicopter.

It has now begun its primary mission on the Red Planet, to look for traces of ancient life signs that could suggest microbial life evolved on Mars billions of years ago.

As part of this is it hoping to collect samples to be studied in much more advanced laboratories back on Earth.

Perseverance is carrying seven instruments that analyze samples from the surface, including an advanced panoramic camera, a ground-penetrating radar and an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer for analysis of chemical elements.

Selected samples will be collected by drilling down to nearly three inches and then sealed in special sample tubes and stored on the rover.

When the rover reaches a suitable location, the tubes will dropped on the surface and collected by a future retrieval mission, which is currently being developed.

Currently, NASA and ESA plan to launch two more spacecraft that would leave Earth in 2026 and reach Mars in 2028.

The first will deploy a small ESA Fetch rover, being built in the UK, which will make its way to Perseverance, pick up the filled sampling tubes and transfer them to a ‘Mars ascent vehicle’ – a small rocket.

Details of the mission are available on the JAXA website

Mars’s moon Phobos was once a ring of rubble around the Red Planet that clumped together to form a solid ball – and it may disintegrate again in about 100 million years 

The largest Martian moon, Phobos, was once a ring of rubble surrounding the Red Planet – until rocks clumped together to form the misshapen body we know today.  

In fact, this ring-to-moon process is a cycle that is expected to repeat again in about 100 million years – putting a new disc of rubble around the Red Planet. 

Astronomers from the SETI institute used the slightly off orbit of Mars’s second moon, Deimos, to confirm the ring-to-moon cycle Phobos goes through.

Deimos orbits Mars with a slight tilt and the team say this could have been caused by interference from a planetary ring in the relatively recent past. 

The authors say Phobos last reformed from a ring of rubble 200 million years ago – a mission to the moon in 2024 will be able to confirm if this theory is correct. 

The ring-to-moon theory was first proposed in 2017, suggesting a large asteroid hit the Red Planet, sending debris into space that formed a ring – that in turn formed into clumps of rock and as they became more stable – the moon Phobos.

They suggested that Phobos would have been significantly larger than it is today – up to 20 times bigger than the moon currently orbiting the Red Planet.

The new study examined the orbit of Deimos and found it matched what they’d expect if Mars once had a ring system. 

‘The fact that Deimos’s orbit is not exactly in plane with Mars’s equator was considered unimportant, and nobody cared to try to explain it,’ said astronomer Matija Ćuk of the SETI Institute. 

‘But once we had a big new idea and we looked at it with new eyes, Deimos’s orbital tilt revealed its big secret.’  

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