NASA has decided what spacecraft it’s going to blast off to the moons of Mars, and it’s pretty much the coolest thing ever.
MEGANE (“eyeglasses” in Japanese) is the futuristic collab between NASA and Japan’s space agency JAXA for the Mars Moons eXploration (MMX) mission. Launching in 2024, this neutron and gamma ray spectrograph really does have high-tech eyes that will explore the Red Planet’s two moons, Phobos and Deimos. It will then touch down on the surface of Phobos and collect a sample of moon dust before making the round trip back to Earth.
By measuring the gamma ray and neutron energy emitted by Phobos, MEGANE will actually be able to see the moon’s elemental composition in macro mode. Superpowered cosmic rays and solar energetic particles that are constantly blasting Phobos make it possible for these elementary particles to be emitted from the surface—and potentially give scientists valuable insight into how the Martian moons were formed.
“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 associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) Thomas Zurbuchen. “International partnerships like this provide high-quality science with high-impact return.”
Mars’ moons are thought to be either former asteroids that were captured or space rocks that came into being after Mars received a massive impact. If they really are captured asteroids, they could possibly have been at least one of the sources of water on Mars (before solar storms obliterated its atmosphere) and Earth. Phobos is also thought to be falling apart, and while that won’t happen for another 30 to 50 million years, we might be able to get more insight into the grooves that are likely signs of its deterioration as Martian gravity keeps drawing it further in and causing these stress fractures.
The spacecraft is being developed by the genius team at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, under the NASA Discovery Program, which seeks to frequently send new low-cost missions into space. These missions align with investigations connected to NASA’s SMD (Science Misssion Directorate) Planetary Science Program, whose Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission just observed some unreal plasma space tornadoes.
“We’ll see the composition of the region from which MMX collects its sample,” said MMX program scientist Thomas Statler. “This will help us better understand what we discover in the laboratory when the mission returns the sample to Earth for analysis.”
Could they also discover alien microbes? Unlikely, but you never know.