Europe wants to send a 50-pound rover to a tiny and strange moon in the solar system

Japan and Germany have a history of collaborating in science and technology ventures. The countries have a joint committee on science and technology cooperation which has met several times over the decades. Both countries have advanced and powerful economies and sophisticated technological know-how, so it makes sense for them to collaborate in scientific activities.

This time, their cooperation concerns a small piece of rock in the shape of a potato: the moon of Mars Phobos.

In 2024, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) plans to launch the Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission to Phobos and Deimos. Deimos will benefit from the flyby, but JAXA has more ambitious ideas for Phobos. They plan to land a spacecraft on Phobos – possibly twice – and collect samples for return to Earth. (JAXA is used to collecting samples from elsewhere, so don’t bet against them.)

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) will send a rover on a mission. The rover is called the MMX Rover, a small 25 kg (55 lb) wheeled vehicle that will be “dropped” onto the surface of Phobos from a height of about 50 meters.

“With the MMX rover, we are breaking new ground in terms of technology because never before has a wheeled exploration vehicle traveled on a small celestial body with only one thousandth of Earth’s gravitational pull,” said Markus Grebenstein of the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics in Oberpfaffenhofen.

Bringing the rover to the surface of Phobos is no ordinary landing procedure. The small vehicle will be dropped on the moon and will tumble as it falls. When he reaches the surface, he will have to straighten up and get to work.

“As the rover plummets to Phobos after separating from the spacecraft, it will perform several ‘somersaults’ upon landing without damage and come to rest in an unpredictable position. From this situation, it will must self-right itself using the propulsion system and deploy its solar panels,” said Grebenstein, DLR project manager for the MMX rover. to maintain contact with the ground with its special wheels despite the low gravity.”

Once there, he will use his instruments: a radiometer and a Raman spectrometer for in situ measurements of the surface of the moon. Why these two?

This is because of the questions around Phobos and his brother, Deimos. Scientists don’t know if these are asteroids captured in the main belt or elsewhere in the solar system – possibly from as far away as the Kuiper belt – or if they are asteroids in pile of rubble that formed on Mars. Some evidence shows that they are torn apart by the gravity of Mars. They may even have already been destroyed once and reformed again, or they may be the result of an impact that sent Martian material into orbit, where it coalesced.

The Raman spectrometer will reveal the mineralogical composition of Phobos. Mineralogical composition is key to understanding the origins of Phobos. Like any body in the solar system, its composition tells scientists where it came from. For example, some elements are much more common in the inner solar system, while others only form beyond the frost line.

The rover’s radiometer will measure the power of the moon’s electromagnetic radiation. It will be tuned to the infrared spectrum and will effectively measure the temperature of Phobos. This helps understand the porosity of the moon, which scientists can compare to other bodies in the solar system. Scientists can use this data to help understand the origins of the moon.

The rover will also have four cameras: two for navigation and two for monitoring wheels on the ground.

The crowning achievement of the mission will be the return of samples. JAXA intends to top its impressive sampling success with the Hayabusa 2 mission. This mission returned samples from the asteroid Ryugu that are carbon-rich fragments. They will help determine the source of the water and organic molecules delivered to Earth.

With MMX, JAXA hopes to collect a much larger sample than the Ryugu sample, up to 100 times larger. Due to conditions on Phobos, the mission has only 90 minutes to collect samples before darkness returns, and the spacecraft must leave the surface. If all goes well, the sample will return to Earth in 2029.

These constraints will not affect the rover. He will take his measurements and then die on Phobos, but first he will help with the sampling operation. The MMX Rover will reach the surface first and help determine the landing point for the Explorer Pod. The rover’s data and images will also serve as a reference for the orbiter’s instruments.

There are levels of international cooperation in this mission. The MMX mission is Japan’s project, and DLR will provide the rover. But Spain is helping to develop the Raman spectrometer, and the French space agency is also involved in the project.

So when the mission hopefully lands on Phobos and succeeds in collecting samples, there will be jubilant teams of scientists and engineers in multiple countries.

Happy JAXA staff showed their “V” for victory signs after Hayabusa 2 managed to collect samples from the asteroid Ryugu. Image credit: JAXA

This article was originally published on Universe today by Evan Gough. Read the original article here.

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