NASA chooses instrument for international mission to Martian moons
NASA has selected a payload to fly on the Japanese mission to the moons of Mars. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) plans to launch its MMX mission to the Martian moons in 2024 and has invited NASA to participate by flying an instrument aboard the probe.
The Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission is currently planned for launch in September of 2024 with a suite of instruments to study Mars and its two moons, Phobos and Deimos. JAXA hopes to use the spacecraft to directly sample material from Phobos and return it to Earth.
The MMX spacecraft will carry seven instruments, including two cameras, a dust analyzer, and two spectrometers. One spectrometer, called MEGANE (meaning “eyeglasses” in Japan), will be provided by NASA. NASA has selected the MEGANE X-ray and neutron spectrometer from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The MEGANE instrument will detect X-rays and neutrons emitted by collisions between high-energy cosmic rays and the material of Phobos itself. These X-rays and neutrons are characteristic of the elemental make-up of the moon.
MEGANE is being funded by NASA’s Discovery program, which provides money for frequent, low-cost space missions and is managed out of NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center.
The French space agency CNES is also providing an instrument – a near-infrared spectrometer called MacrOmega. The MacrOmega instrument is expected to provide vital data to target a landing site on Phobos as well as providing general data on both Phobos and Deimos.
Once MMX has launched from Earth sometime in September 2024, it will fly on to Mars, arriving around August 2025. It will then spend several months studying Phobos, Deimos, and the environment around Mars. After collecting sufficient data, the entire MMX spacecraft will land on Phobos and gather at least 10 grams of material. The probe will depart Phobos and Mars orbit in August 2028 and return to Earth around July 2029.
The return of sampled materials from Phobos has long been a goal of the space science community. In 2011, Russia launched its Phobos-Grunt mission which had the goal of returning Phobos material to Earth. Despite a successful launch, the probe failed to leave Earth orbit. The previous Soviet missions, Phobos 1 and 2, were also primarily targeting Phobos but were not sample-return missions.
Phobos 1 failed on route to Mars due to a controller error, while Phobos 2 suffered a computer malfunction after only returning a few pictures of its target moon. Neither the United States nor the ESA has ever launched missions that primarily targeted the moons of Mars. If successful, MMX will be the first spacecraft to land on the moon of another planet and return material to Earth.
One of the primary questions that the MMX spacecraft hopes to resolve is the origin of Phobos and Deimos. Scientists for some time have assumed that both moons are asteroids captured by Mars long in the past. However, some scientists now argue that the moons are the collected debris from a massive impact in Mars’ past. Directly examining material from Phobos would play a major role in resolving this question.
Development of the MEGANE instrument selected by NASA for the flight on MMX is being led by Dr. David Lawrence at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Development of MMX is being led by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. The launch is scheduled for September 2024.
“Solving the riddle of how Mars’ moons came to be will help us better understand how planets formed around our Sun and, in turn, around other stars,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at Headquarters in Washington. “International partnerships like this provide high-quality science with high- impact return.”
Christopher Paul has had a lifelong interest in spaceflight. He began writing about his interest in the Florida Tech Crimson. His primary areas of interest are in historical space systems and present and past planetary exploration missions. He lives in Kissimmee, Florida, and also enjoys cooking and photography. Paul saw his first Space Shuttle launch in 2005 when he moved to central Florida to attend classes at the Florida Institute of Technology, studying space science, and has closely followed the space program since. Paul is especially interested in the renewed effort to land crewed missions on the Moon and to establish a permanent human presence there. He has covered several launches from NASA's Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral for space blogs before joining SpaceFlight Insider in mid-2017.