The role of the Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission in the new era of Martian life exploration.
- The surface of the Martian moon, Phobos, is covered with a variety of material that was excavated and ejected via numerous meteorite impacts from over the entire surface of
Jointly executed by NASA and ESA, the “Mars Sample Return (MSR)” project plans to collect a large quantity of soil samples taken from the Jezero crater and return these to the Earth. The NASA rover, which landed safely on Mars in February 2020, is responsible for sample collection and storing the material in containers for transportation. The containers are to be retrieved from the surface of Mars by a recovery system scheduled for a future launch with the earliest planned Earth return in 2031.
The Jezero crater is thought to be the past location of a large lake that existed billions of years ago. Minerals such as clays that suggest the existence of water have been discovered, leading to the expectation that traces of life may remain. NASA-ESA therefore decided to scrutinize this area. However, in the case of celestial bodies such as the Earth and Mars, we cannot assume knowledge about the entire planet can be informed based on a single location.
This has resulted in new expectations placed on the surface material on the Martian moon, Phobos. Computer simulations have revealed that the surface of Phobos is loaded with Martian material excavated during innumerable small meteorite impacts that have occurred randomly over the surface of Mars. “Particularly convenient for the Martian Moons eXploration mission, which will target Phobos for sample return, is that the moon’s close orbit to Mars means that excavated Martian material can reach Phobos without a strong shocked excavation event, which would melt the material,” Hyodo explains. “In other words, traces of Martian life and biomarkers could be carried to Phobos without being destroyed.”
The JAXA MMX mission is scheduled to be launched in 2024 JFY. The MMX spacecraft aims to land on Phobos and collect a total of 10g or more of surface material samples from at least two different locations. (For the Hayabusa2 mission, the target prior to launch was 0.1g, so the MMX project is aiming for a 100 times larger sample.)
Following Hayabusa2, the primary goal of the MMX project is to acquire primordial material of the Solar System with a sample returned from a small celestial body. If Phobos originates from a D-type asteroid captured by Mars’s gravity (observational data supporting this shows that the moon surface resembles that of a D-type asteroid), it is expected that the mission will collect primordial material such as organic matter, which are thought to be abundant on D-type asteroids. Alternatively, if Phobos was formed from fragments of a giant impact with ancient Mars (a large basin in the Martian northern hemisphere could be evidence for this occurring), Phobos was formed from a mixture of ancient Mars material and that of the colliding celestial object. The sample returned from Phobos in this case would mean the acquisition of ancient Martian material.
Regardless of the origin of Phobos, surface material from Mars has been deposited on the Phobos surface, after the Martian surface was excavated in the previously mentioned multitude of impacts from small meteorites. Since the MMX spacecraft is scheduled to return to Earth in 2029, the sample return from the Martian sphere carried by MMX is expected to be earlier than that from MSR. That is, JAXA is aiming with MMX for the world’s first sample return of a variety of Martian surface material that potentially could contain traces of Martian life and biomarkers, as well as material from the Martian moon that relates to the origin of Phobos.
Dr. HYODO Ryuki and Professor USUI Tomohiro of the JAXA Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), with the help of input from members of the MSR and MMX science teams, summarized and compared the possibilities for the exploration of life in the Martian sphere that can be achieved with MSR and MMX. This perspective piece was published by Science Magazine.
“While MSR is limited to exploration of the Jezero crater, the detailed examination has the potential to discover even present-day life if it exists. On the other hand, traces of ancient fossilized microorganisms and biomarkers, dead remains of recent life, and possible