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Mars' moon Phobos may be something completely different than previously thought

Mars' moon Phobos may be something completely different than previously thought

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The red planet Mars is orbited by two small moons: Phobos and Deimos. © NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC/University of Arizona

Mars is orbited by two mysterious moons. Now a study has found a new approach to what Phobos and Deimos once looked like.

PARIS – The Martian moons Phobos and Deimos are different from the other moons in our solar system: they are small compared to the planet they orbit. They are covered in craters and have low densities. There are different theories about how the two moons formed. One says that a celestial body collided with Mars, creating a rocky disk around the planet – from which the two small moons were formed. One day, Phobos will also meet a dramatic end.

Another theory suggests that Phobos and Deimos are asteroids captured by Mars using its gravity. But none of the theories can explain all the properties of the two Martian moons – Phobos and Deimos are a mystery. The Japanese mission “Exploration of the Moons of Mars” (MMX), which is scheduled to begin in 2026, aims to help. Both moons will be examined in detail by MMX, and it is also planned to collect samples of material on Phobos that can be examined on Earth. The “IDEFIX” rover, in which the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the French space agency CNES are participating, will also be placed on the lunar surface.

Focus on Mars' mysterious moons Phobos and Deimos

The MMX mission aims to provide new information about Mars’ moons. And one study is now doing just that, examining previously unpublished images of Phobos. Using the images, a research team has found evidence that the Martian moon is different than previously assumed. The images come from the European Mars Express spacecraft and were evaluated by a French-German team. This found that Phobos does not reflect light evenly, but appears brighter when the Sun is directly overhead.

This may seem trivial to laymen, but professionals are familiar with this phenomenon: it is observed in comets. “Our photometric analysis showed that the photometric properties of Phobos are similar to those of comet 67P: both have a red spectrum, high surface porosity and similar opposition values,” the team wrote in the study. For publication in the specialized journal Astronomy and Astrophysics Supposedly It became. The research paper added that the comet could be a binary comet or a binary comet consisting of two bodies linked by gravity.

Were the moons of Mars once parts of a comet?

The results of the study on Phobos could also allow conclusions to be drawn about Mars' second moon, Deimos. If Phobos is indeed a comet, then Deimos could be a comet as well. In the study, the team suggests that the two moons may once have been a two-part comet that was torn apart by Mars' gravity. Thus, the two moons of Mars could be two parts of a single celestial body.

Mars' moon Phobos, photographed by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter from a distance of 5,800 kilometers (3,600 miles). (File photo)
Mars' moon Phobos, imaged by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter from a distance of 5,800 kilometers (3,600 miles). (File photo) © NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

“If the moons of Mars are indeed captured comets, then that means that comets can also be captured by terrestrial planets.” quotes Lead author of the study, Sonia Fornasier, from the University of Paris Cité. Studying the two Martian moons by the MMX mission could provide important new insights into the formation and evolution of Mars and its moons Phobos and Deimos. What’s more: “If the Martian moons have indeed been captured by comets, this means that comets could also be captured by terrestrial planets,” Fornasier emphasizes. (unpaid invoice)

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