Tag Archives: Mars

Two forgotten space rocks

Obviously the Moon is our nearest neighbour in the solar system. But which is the next nearest? Venus? Mars? Or Mercury, perhaps? Yes, any one of these at times – but not all the time.*

Relative orbital positions are changing continuously, of course. But when appropriately aligned, and on fairly rare occasions, the second nearest heavenly body to Earth is in fact Deimos, one of the two moonlets of Mars, the other being Phobos. So, considering their relative proximity, why do we hear so little about them?

Is it because they’re just plain boring? Compared to the massive, swirling, Pollock-esque globe of Jupiter or the spectacularly pure tones of the other gas giants, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, these two lumps of rock are little more than king size boulders. They seem utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of things planetisimal.

Yes, no doubt one of the reasons is that they’re so tiny. The smaller of the two, Deimos (pictured below), has a mean radius of only 3.9 miles. Phobos, although its radius is 7 miles, has a mass – the amount of material of which it is composed – seven times bigger than that of Deimos. Compare their diminutive dimensions with those of our own Moon with its radius about 1,080 miles.

Deimos is further out from the Martian surface than Phobos, at some 14,500 miles. Time and the gravitational pull of Mars have kneaded it into a rather odd shaped object, a bit reminiscent of some kinds of modernist sculpture.

Deimos is 56% of the size of Phobos. Deimos’ orbit is fairly regular, whereas that of Phobos is very rapid and eccentric. To an observer on Mars, Phobos (pictured below) would rise in the west and set in the east twice a day.

Actually, it’s grossly untrue to say that Phobos and Deimos are forgotten – certainly not by the scientific establishment. Just yesterday, for instance, a group of Japanese and American scientists published a research paper which concludes that “space weathering” on Phobos, in tandem with its eccentric orbit, has caused its surface to be divided into two distinct geologic units, known as the red and blue units.

They believe that much could be learned from exploration of Phobos. “With a better understanding of the surface and subsurface conditions on the Martian moon, the Phobos surface can become a ‘Rosetta-stone’ for understanding space weathering elsewhere in the solar system”, they suggest. The team has added one more theory to the wealth of speculation about the origins of the little moon. (Sometimes, the theories have seemed as eccentric as the Phobos orbit …).

There have been many attempts and proposals to mount dedicated missions to these two moons. None of the three dedicated return sample missions to Phobos was successful. So far, the most valuable observations of Phobos and Deimos were made in 1971 by NASA‘s Mariner IX spacecraft, which sent back a total of 7,000 images of both Mars and its two moons.

The most highly-anticipated mission to Phobos and Deimos is MMX, though this isn’t planned to launch for another six years – its scheduled launch date is September 2024. A very ambitious mission, MMX (see illustration below) will launch from Tanegashima Space Center in Japan and consist of an orbiter and lander, aiming to return surface samples from both moons, with the development of one of the spacecraft’s suite of seven science instruments being supported by NASA.

I wonder what it would be like to stand on Phobos (in particular) or Deimos and see almost the whole sky filled with a close-up view of the Red Planet? Only time will tell … but it seems reasonable to assume that space tourists will some day, in the next hundred years or so, use one, or both, of the moons as a viewing platform to look down on the Red Planet and observe its geographical features, its weather systems and the human settlements that have sprung up and are spreading across its surface.

Then again, the future is a process, not an event. It won’t take long to extract anything of geological value from these two little bodies. And once man-made structures swarm around the skies of Mars, offering scientists and holidaymakers alike a wide range of accommodation options, Phobos and Deimos may seem slightly irrelevant. Maybe they will be put to use by the military; maybe they’ll become private real estate owned by a Martian oligarch; or maybe they’ll be pushed away into the vastnesses of the universe, to clear a safer path for interplanetary transport?



Image credits (all): NASA
* Thanks to Mike Yamiolkoski for pointing out an error in the first version of this section

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Are we nearly there yet? The normalisation of space exploration

Will it be exciting when Man eventually lands on Mars?

Yes! – and no …

On the one hand it may not be particularly dramatic in the way that the Moon landings or the Shuttle missions were. The problem is that advances in technology and mathematics have seemed to “normalise” space exploration, removing many of the nail-biting uncertainties, much of our fear for the astronauts’ lives and a sizeable slice of the shared pride we feel in Man’s ability to push back yet another frontier.


When British astronaut Timothy Peake set off across the tarmac to board the Russian Soyuz TMA-19M spaceship recently, he looked pretty relaxed. And personally I thought that was understandable, given the number of missions into space that have taken place over the past sixty years or so. Obviously it was a rather special day at the office. But it’s about 113 years since Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first manned flight in a heavier-than-air aircraft; some fifty-eight years later, Russia sent Yuri Gagarin into space; and fifty-five years still further on, Mr. Peake is safely ensconced in the International Space Station, where he’ll live with his fellow astronauts until June.

And yet despite all the many previous missions, things can still go pear-shaped. It took only a few drops of water to force an early termination of Peake’s space walk (the first by a British astronaut), amid suppressed panic in the control room down at Baikonur.

So, back to the Mars landing. Will it be really dangerous?

Yes! – and no …

Think about the business of guiding the Mars lander onto the surface of the Red Planet. If such a landing were to take place on Earth, my guess is it would struggle to make headlines anywhere other than in the inside pages of a few magazines aimed at aviation nerds. Will Mars be all that different? Unlike the prelude to the Moon landings, we’ve already received countless spoilers about the Martian terrain from a range of exploratory vehicles. Some of the maps of Mars available online are almost comparable with Google Street View. The commander of the first craft to touch down on the red dust of Mars will probably feel much more at home than did Neil Armstrong, when he and Buzz Aldrin – yes Aldrin, not Lightyear – touched down in the Sea of Tranquility. So there’ll be far less cause for concern there.

The first media event to really spark the British public’s interest in space travel wasn’t the Apollo missions but a radio drama series called Journey Into Space, launched in 1954. Set way in the future (1972), the series followed the dramatic adventures of Jet Morgan, fifteen years after the “conquest of space”, which had (apparently) occurred in 1965 – well they weren’t far out! I remember certain episodes really well – and I wasn’t alone. The episode transmitted on 10th January, 1955, achieved a broadcast audience share of 17%, whereas the newsreel transmitted simultaneously on BBC TV Radio_Times_5_Dec_1954had an audience share of 16%. This was the last time that a radio programme achieved a higher rating than concurrent TV programmes (source: Wikipedia).

In the days before cgi and 3D glasses, the power of the human imagination to create terrifying mindscapes was just as strong – probably much stronger, given the desensitising produced by the constant torrent of extreme media imagery to which our minds are subjected on a daily basis nowadays.

Even now, the mental picture of Mitch becoming disengaged from the spacecraft and drifting away into the echoing void of the BBC Home Service remains with me; and as for the robotic words transmitted by the crew member who appeared infected by some strange, space-borne disease, “This – is – Whitaker …“, that was definitely a good time to hide behind the sofa!

Of course Tim Peake’s spacewalk did look a bit old hat, coming after Gravity and The Martian. You could be forgiven for thinking that NASA, the Russian roscosmosspace agency Roscosmos and the European Space Agency (ESA) should be sued for plagiarism, given that Hollywood has normally “been there” – allbeit only in a cinematographic way – light years before those organisations.

Much of the recent Hollywood epic The Martian – a very good watch – was more about the trials and tribulations of a marooned human being battling against loneliness and a hostile environment than any real worries over the technical feasibility of his rescue. And Robinson Crusoe had obviously staked out that turf some 200 years ago. The ability of the guys at Mission Control to bring astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) safely home was never really in doubt.

The emphasis in the film/novel was on Watney’s human frailty and his inventiveness. He did the kind of things other people have done in so many similar situations back on terra firma. He just happened to be some 140 million miles from Earth. (Yes, I know, the distance between Earth and Mars varies wildly because of the different orbits of the two planets). He grew spuds. It would have been interesting to know what variety he planted; and how interesting too that Timothy Peake is right now involving British schoolchildren in experiments with “rocket seeds“. His initiative may well turn out to be the start of a whole new curriculum of space botany.

The thirtieth anniversary of the Challenger disaster was just three days ago and one thinks back, of course, to the tragic fate of US teacher and astronaut Christa McAuliffe and the educational insights her mission might have provided. Fortunately all wasn’t lost and NASA have reconstructed the “teacher in space”‘s plans in six recorded lessons, available here.

All of our cultural background will play into our assessment of how exciting the Mars landing will be. And many of the influences will come from cinema or literature or techology. And maybe even David Bowie. Some will feel powerless to move the astronauts’ rover over the Martian terrain, until the X-Box version of the Mars landing is launched. No means of clicking … it’ll be a truly frustrating time for them … especially as it already appears that there’ll be no hostile aliens attacking the valiant pioneers. Conversely, as reality inevitably catches up with imagination, the Mars-based creative industries will start to feel the pinch as actual fact undermines speculative fiction.

So, any causes for concern?

Yes! Very much so …

The “Martian Curse” has produced a high proportion of failures in the various attempts to land unmanned craft on the planet. The presence of men on board a Mars lander will provide “hands-on” beaglecontrol of the touchdown manoeuvrings; but the possibility of pilot error will also be ever-present for the first time. (The best laid plan of a British Mars explorer came to naught, of course. The ill-fated Beagle 2 mission, which had many of us on the edge of our armchairs at Christmas time back in 2003, disappeared without trace; until January last year, that is, when it was spotted by the HiRise camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Its solar panels had failed to deploy properly, so it had been unable to communicate with Earth).

But there are a number of other concerns. Earlier this month, for instance, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), in its annual report, expressed frustration at the way space missions were being funded and safety compromised:

“From 2012 through 2015, the CCP [Commercial Crew Program] was not funded at the requested levels. Going forward, we are concerned that the CCP may not be sufficiently funded to execute the planned program and sustain competition, which we believe to be critical to both safety and success. The ESD funding levels have been flat—an approach that does not reflect the profile needed for a human space flight development program. Funding for the NASA Aircraft Management System has been erratic, with little likelihood of future stability. Sustainable funding is needed to prevent increased flight safety risks.

“We remain convinced that a primary contributing factor to our perceived accretion of risk is continued lack of clear, transparent, and definitive formal risk acceptance and accountability. We have had a long-standing recommendation on this topic that remains open and has not been adequately addressed”.

Space exploration is no longer just about NASA, of course. More and more countries are seeing the potential for profit, technological advancement and education. And as the space adventure turns into a story about Mankind as a species, rather than one about the US and Russia, the speed with which new knowledge is acquired and new capabilities developed can only increase.


But, just as the sight of a giant Boeing 747 taking off has become fairly unremarkable, so our journeys to Mars will one day be mundane.

For me, the real nail-biters, will be the first trips to Titan and Enceladus (which is a bit smaller than Britain – see artist’s impression below – source: public domain), respectively the largest and sixth largest moons of Saturn. These two moons seem to hold out the real possibility of Man finding life on another world.



Now that will be really exciting …




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