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Was a Prehistoric Icy Object Responsible for Forming the Moons of Mars?

The Martian moons Phobos and Deimos have always been a subject of fascination for astronomers. Unlike other moons in the Solar System that are round and regular, these two moons are irregularly shaped, resembling lumpy potatoes. Their odd shapes and unusual compositions have led scientists to question their origins.

There are two main hypotheses about how Phobos and Deimos came to be. One theory suggests that they are captured asteroids, while the other proposes that they are debris from an ancient impactor that collided with Mars. The latter theory is similar to how Earth’s moon is believed to have formed. However, the captured asteroid theory is also plausible, considering examples like Neptune’s moon Triton, which is thought to be a captured object.

Phobos and Deimos share similarities with carbonaceous C-type asteroids, the most abundant type of asteroid in the Solar System. Their compositions and albedos support the captured asteroid theory. However, their orbits are circular and close to Mars’ equator, which contradicts the eccentric orbits expected from captured objects.

The density of Phobos and Deimos is lower than that of silicate, the main component of Mars’ crust. This presents a challenge to the impact theory, as a powerful impact should have resulted in a disk of material around Mars containing more Martian silica. The conflicting evidence has left scientists searching for a definitive explanation for the moons’ origins.

Recently, researchers presented a new hypothesis at the 55th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. They suggest that an ancient impactor, but one composed of ice, could be responsible for creating Phobos and Deimos. This icy impactor theory offers a fresh perspective on the moons’ formation.

Using simulations, the researchers showed that an impactor with a significant amount of water ice could have produced the debris disk from which Phobos and Deimos formed. Unlike previous studies with rocky impactors, the temperature in the debris disk with an icy impactor would have been lower, preserving carbonaceous materials and chondritic materials in the moons.

The researchers found that varying the ice content in the impactor influenced the size and composition of the debris disk around Mars. Higher ice content resulted in lower disk temperatures, allowing for the survival of chondritic material in Phobos and Deimos. The simulations provided insights into how an icy impactor could explain the unique features of the Martian moons.

While the idea of an icy impactor with 70% to 90% water ice mantles may seem unconventional, it offers a plausible explanation for the origins of Phobos and Deimos. Further exploration, such as Japan’s Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission, could provide more evidence to support or refute this theory. The delay in MMX’s launch may prolong the wait for samples from Phobos, but the potential discoveries about the Martian moons and the early Solar System will be well worth it.

Understanding the origins of Phobos and Deimos is a crucial piece in unraveling the mysteries of Mars and the formation of our Solar System. The ongoing research and upcoming missions hold the promise of shedding light on these enigmatic moons and their place in the cosmic story.


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Can Martian atmospheric samples provide greater insights into the Red Planet compared to surface samples?

Could Martian atmospheric samples teach us more about the Red Planet than surface samples? This is a question that has intrigued scientists and researchers for years, and a recent study presented at the 55th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference delves into this intriguing topic. The study, conducted by a team of international researchers, aimed to explore the significance of returning atmospheric samples from Mars and how they could provide valuable insights into the formation and evolution of the Red Planet.

NASA is currently focused on returning surface samples from Mars in the hopes of uncovering clues about the ancient history of the planet and the possibility of past life. However, the researchers behind this study argue that atmospheric samples could offer a unique perspective on Mars’ history that surface samples may not be able to provide. To shed light on this fascinating subject, lead author Dr. Edward Young, a professor at UCLA, and co-author Dr. Timothy Swindle, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona, shared their insights with Universe Today.

Dr. Young explains, “We learn a lot about the origin of a planet from its atmosphere as well as its rocks. In particular, isotope ratios of certain elements can constrain the processes leading to the formation of the planet.” This highlights the importance of studying both atmospheric and surface samples to gain a comprehensive understanding of Mars’ geological and evolutionary history.

One of the key motivations behind obtaining atmospheric samples from Mars is to complement the data collected from surface samples. Dr. Swindle elaborates on this, stating, “We need an atmospheric sample to know what the rocks might have been exchanging elements and isotopes with. But we’d also like to have a sample of the Martian atmosphere to answer some basic questions about processes that have occurred, or are occurring, on Mars.” This dual approach could provide scientists with a more holistic view of the complex processes that have shaped the Red Planet over billions of years.

The study outlines several potential benefits of obtaining atmospheric samples, including gaining insights into the Martian interior, evolutionary trends in atmospheric compositions, nitrogen cycling, and sources of methane on Mars. The recent incident with the NASA Perseverance rover, where it inadvertently collected atmospheric gases instead of a rock core sample, underscores the importance of studying atmospheric samples alongside surface samples.

While the idea of returning atmospheric samples from Mars is still in the development stage, the researchers discuss potential methods for collecting these samples. Dr. Swindle mentions two proposed approaches, including flying a spacecraft through the Martian atmosphere to collect samples or using a sample return cannister on the surface of Mars equipped with an air compressor. Although there are currently no concrete plans for dedicated atmospheric sample missions, initiatives like the Sample Collection for Investigation of Mars (SCIM) have previously been proposed.

Looking ahead, the researchers emphasize the value of atmospheric samples in unraveling the mysteries of Mars’ past, including its potential for supporting life. Despite Mars’ current harsh conditions, evidence from past missions suggests a more hospitable environment billions of years ago, with flowing water and active volcanism. The quest to uncover whether ancient life existed on Mars remains a tantalizing prospect, and atmospheric samples could hold vital clues.

In conclusion, the study presents a compelling case for the importance of Martian atmospheric samples in advancing our understanding of the Red Planet’s history and evolution. As Dr. Young aptly puts it, “Only time will tell, and this is why we science!” The ongoing pursuit of scientific exploration and discovery continues to fuel our curiosity about Mars and the broader cosmos, inspiring us to keep looking up and delving deeper into the mysteries of the universe.

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