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Weekend Feature: New Video Released of Mars' Mystery Moon, Phobos


 Earlier this month, ESA's Mars Express performed a special manoeuvre to observe an unusual alignment of Jupiter and the martian moon Phobos. The impressive images have now been processed into a movie of this rare event. The origin of Phobos (which means "fear" in ancient Greek), is a mystery, but three theories are considered plausible.

The first is that the moon is a captured asteroid; the second is that it formed in-situ as Mars formed below it, and the third is that Phobos formed later than Mars, from debris flung into martian orbit when a massive meteorite struck the Red Planet. A fourth, far more radical and controversial (although thoroughly intriguing) theory is one that has been kicking around for decades: that Phobos is a artificial object in Mars orbit -in short, a 1.5-mile-long, extremely ancient spacecraft.

In a new development, scientists say they have uncovered firm evidence that Mars's largest moon, the mysterious Phobos, is made from rocks blasted off the Martian surface in a catastrophic event, solving a long-standing puzzle. It has been suggested that both Phobos and Deimos could be asteroids that formed in the main asteroid belt and were then "captured" by Mars's gravity.

An alternative theory suggests that Phobos could have been formed from the remnants of an earlier moon destroyed by Mars's gravitational forces. However, this moon might itself have originated from material thrown into orbit from the Martian surface.

Previous observations of Phobos at visible and near-infrared wavelengths have been interpreted to suggest the possible presence of carbonaceous chondrites, found in meteorites that have crashed to Earth. This carbon-rich, rocky material, left over from the formation of the Solar System, is thought to originate in asteroids from the so-called "main belt" between Mars and Jupiter.

New data from the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft appears to make the asteroid capture scenario look less likely. Recent observations as thermal infrared wavelengths using the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) instrument on Mars Express show a poor match between the rocks on Phobos and any class of chondritic meteorite known from Earth, which seems to support the "re-accretion" models for the formation of Phobos, in which rocks from the surface of the Red Planet are blasted into Martian orbit to later clump and form Phobos.

"We detected for the first time a type of mineral called phyllosilicates on the surface of Phobos, particularly in the areas northeast of Stickney, its largest impact crater," said co-author Dr Marco Giuranna, from the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome.These phyllosilicate rocks are thought to form in the presence of water, and have been found previously on Mars.

"This is very intriguing as it implies the interaction of silicate materials with liquid water on the parent body prior to incorporation into Phobos," said Dr Giuranna. "Alternatively, phyllosilicates may have formed in situ, but this would mean that Phobos required sufficient internal heating to enable liquid water to remain stable."

Other observations from Phobos appear to match the types of minerals identified on the surface of Mars. Thus, the make-up of Phobos appears more closely related to Mars than to asteroids from the main belt, say the researchers.

In addition, said Pascal Rosenblatt of the Royal Observatory of Belgium, "the asteroid capture scenarios also have difficulties in explaining the current near-circular and near-equatorial orbit of both Martian moons (Phobos and Deimos)".

The researchers also used Mars Express to obtain the most precise measurement yet of Phobos' density. "This number is significantly lower than the density of meteoritic material associated with asteroids. It implies a sponge-like structure with voids making up 25%-45% in Phobos's interior," said Dr Rosenblatt.

A highly porous asteroid would have probably not survived if captured by Mars. Alternatively, such a highly porous structure on Phobos could have resulted from the re-accretion of rocky blocks in Mars' orbit.

Describing the internal geometric structure of this "moon" as revealed by MARSIS, European Space Agency (ESA) sources emphasized that "several of these interior Phobos compartments also appear to still be holding some kind of atmosphere ...." which has given birth to wild speculation that Phobos could prove to be an artificial satellite of some sort. The source repeated this several times ... raising all kinds of fascinating questions regarding "how" the radar could, in fact, determine this -- that some of the vast "rooms" inside Phobos ("from a quarter to half-a-mile in diameter ...") were "maintaining an internal pressure."

Russia's robotic mission to Phobos, named Phobos-Grunt (grunt means ground , or earth, in Russian) to be launched in 2011, will investigate the moon's composition in more detail.

The Daily Galaxy via bbc.co.uk

Three frames from the series of 104 taken by Mars Express during the Phobos-Jupiter conjunction on 1 June 2011. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)


The assertion that Phobos could be an artificial satellite is not a "theory" in any scientific sense. There is absolutely no evidence for it and it and it does not warrant mention alongside credible ideas so as to mislead people into thinking that this idea has any scientific merit at all. Doing so degrades the Daily Galaxy's credibility. This idea is "controversial" in the same sense that a flat Earth is controversial: in that it's the product of misconception, magical thinking, and logical fallacy.

Intelligent technological species create artificial structures. However unlikely the above poster believes it to be, there is no fallacy in listing among hypotheses which attempt to account for Phobos' many interesting features the one in which Phobos is an artificially created/altered structure. No magic required, no logical fallacy. Calling such a hypothesis "unscientific" is incorrect; one may choose to consider it the least likely in a long list of hypotheses for the origin and features of Phobos. It is known as well as anything can be known that the earth is not flat, so the poster has made a category error in his comparison of the two ideas.

That must not be "Peter Beter", for this Peter seems to detest imagination, a requisite for so many scientific endeavours, and by no means a fallacious speculation, for in fact it is your dismissal that is the fallacy if you are basing your detestation of intelligent creation of said object on such a feat being impossible.

To delve into natural causes, perhaps it was formed as a bubble of molten materials, cooling with a cavernous interior. Or perhaps it was remarkably struck by a small impactor while it was still molten or partially so, with such an impactor behaving almost like a glass blower. And if such impactor were a comet or similar it could have evaporated in the heated interior, and thus leaving a gaseous bubble within.

DUde that is like totally amazing.


Great to watch

if there are caverns holding atmosphere on phobos... don't care how they got there... its a giant stroke of luck for us. there have been rumors about this for a long time that nobody really took seriously. can't wait to see what the russians find out. i hope they share it... they pretty much have a spacecraft ready to go to mars. it would be a huge coop for them to go and turn phobos into a russian space station. :D

Describing the internal geometric structure of this "moon" as revealed by MARSIS, European Space Agency (ESA) sources emphasized that "several of these interior Phobos compartments also appear to still be holding some kind of atmosphere ...." which has given birth to wild speculation that Phobos could prove to be an artificial satellite of some sort.

"For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky"

Wow, they don't have a circle shaped moon... I wonder if it's an asteroid or an actual moon.

i think its pretty well established that they are asteroids. both will eventually crash into mars a long time from now. spherical moons happen when they are big enough that gravity pulls everything towards the center of the moon... gravity is stronger than what the moon is made of.

Damn thats amazing

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