MMX and Twinkle Space Telescope work together to unveil the origin of Martian moons

Article by Hiroyuki Kurokawa, specially appointed assistant professor at the Earth-Life Science- Institute in Tokyo

Artist impression of the Twinkle Space Telescope (credit: Twinkle)

The Martian Moons eXploration Mission (MMX) will be collaborating with the UK-led Twinkle Space Telescope to elucidate the origin of the Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos.

The two moons are thought to either be captured asteroids, snagged by Mars’s gravity after being scattered towards the terrestrial planets from the outer Solar System, or have coalesced during a giant impact event on the Martian surface. The properties of the moons in both these formation scenarios will reveal clues about conditions on the young terrestrial worlds (including a potentially habitable Mars) and on how water and organics may have moved from the icy-laden outer Solar System to where life could begin.

Twinkle is a new space telescope that is a scheduled to begin operations in 2024, operated by the UK-based Blue Skies Space Ltd. The telescope will be able to perform spectroscopic observations in the infrared and visible wavelength range, whereby the amount of light reflected or emitted from objects at the different wavelengths can be measured.

This sequence of 19 images was taken in visible-wavelength light as the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) camera on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter scanned across the Martian moon Phobos (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU)

The wavelengths of light detectable by Twinkle are affected by the presence water (in the form of hydrous minerals which include water molecules within their structure), organic matter and other materials that could indicate the origin of the moons. Because our atmosphere is particularly good at absorbing infrared wavelengths, observations from the Earth are impeded. This makes the space-based Twinkle an excellent instrument for a remote study of the moons ahead of the arrival of the MMX spacecraft.

The Twinkle Space Telescope is expected to observe Phobos and Deimos in JFY 2024, before the arrival of the MMX spacecraft in the Martian sphere. The observation data acquired by Twinkle is expected to be useful for planning the operations of the MMX spacecraft, such as the best observational program and sampling strategy, as well as for instrument calibration to ensure accuracy of the results.