JAXA’s ambitious mission to Phobos will include a European-built rover


JAXA's ambitious mission to Phobos will include a European-built rover

Japan is sending a spacecraft to Phobos to study it and collect samples for return to Earth. German rover will be part of the fun. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Japan and Germany have a history of cooperation in scientific and technological fields. The countries have a joint committee for cooperation in science and technology that has met many times over the decades. Both countries have advanced and strong economies and advanced technical knowledge, so it is logical that they would cooperate in scientific activities.


This time, their collaboration concerns a small potato-shaped piece of rock: Mars’ moon Phobos.

In 2024, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) plans to launch the Mars Moon Exploration Mission (MMX) to Phobos and Deimos. Deimos will get the quick cure, but Jaksa has more ambitious ideas for Phobos. They plan to land a spacecraft on Phobos – perhaps twice – and collect samples to bring back to Earth. (JAXA has a great track record of collecting samples from elsewhere, so don’t bet on them.)

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) will send a rover on the mission. The rover is called the MMX Rover, and it is 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 traversed such a small celestial body with only one-thousandth of a planet. Gravity pullsaid Dr. Marcus Grinstein of the DLR Institute for Robotics and Mechatronics in Oberpfaffenhofen.

Placing the rover on the surface of Phobos is not a normal landing procedure. The mini car will be dropped on the moon and collapse when it falls. When she gets to the surface, she’ll need to right herself and get to work.

JAXA's ambitious mission to Phobos will include a European-built rover

This photo shows the MMX rover being delivered to the DLR site in Bremen, where engineers will complete its assembly. Credit: DLR

“When the rover falls on Phobos after separating from the spacecraft, it will perform several ‘flips’ on its harmless landing and will settle into an unpredictable position. From this state, it must independently straighten itself with the help of the propulsion system and reveal to it Solar Panelssaid Grinstein, DLR project manager for the MMX rover. “Finally, it will travel very carefully at only a few millimeters per second in order to retain contact with the ground with its own wheels despite the reduced gravity.”

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

It’s because of questions about Phobos and her brother Deimos. Scientists aren’t sure if they’re asteroids captured from the main belt or elsewhere in the solar system – perhaps from as far away as the Kuiper belt – or if they are rubble-pile asteroids that formed on Mars. Some evidence shows that they are being torn apart by the gravitational pull of Mars. It may have been destroyed once already and repaired again, or it may have been the result of an impact that sent Martian matter into orbit, where it coalesced.

A Raman spectrometer will reveal the metallic composition of Phobos. Mineral composition is crucial to understanding the origins of Phobos. Like any object in the solar system, its composition tells scientists where it is from. For example, some elements are more common in the inner solar system, while others form only outside the frost line.

The rover’s radiometer will measure the strength of the moon’s electromagnetic radiation. It will tune to the infrared spectrum and effectively measure the temperature of Phobos. This helps understand the moon’s porosity, which scientists can compare to other solar system bodies. 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 that will monitor wheels on the ground.

The culmination of the task completion will be the return of the sample. JAXA intends to surpass its impressive sampling feat from the Hayabusa 2 mission. That mission returned samples from the asteroid Ryugu that are carbon-rich fragments. They will help determine the source of the water and the organic molecules that are delivered to the Earth.

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

These restrictions will not affect the rover. It will take its measurements and then die on Phobos, but first, it will contribute its sampling. The MMX Rover will reach the surface first and help locate the Exploration Module to land. Data and images from the probe will also be used as a reference for the orbiter’s instruments.

There are levels of international cooperation in this task. MMX mission is Japan project, DLR will supply rover. But Spain is helping to develop a Raman spectrometer, and the French Space Agency is also involved in the project.

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

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