NASA to develop a key instrument onboard the Martian Moon eXploration Mission

NASA is planning to help develop one of the Martian Moon eXploration mission’s top priority scientific instruments for remote analysis of Phobos and Deimos.

Jim Green, Director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA, enthusiastically describes the mission saying, “A mission to the moons of Mars —Phobos and Deimos— will provide a fascinating opportunity to resolve key science questions concerning their compositions, origin, and relationship to other Solar System materials. For instance, are these moons possibly re-accreted Mars ejecta or are they possibly related to primitive, D-type bodies [asteroids]? In addition, humans can realistically explore the surfaces of only a few objects and Phobos and Deimos are on that list. Their position orbiting about Mars may make them a prime target for humans to visit first before reaching the surface of the Red Planet, but that will only be possible after the results of the MMX mission have been completed.

NASA will prepare a plan for one of the mission’s three top priority remote sensing instruments, which also include the near-infrared spectrometer being developed with CNES and an optical camera. The instrument with NASA will measure the energies of neutrons and Gamma rays that are emitted from the moons.

Both neutrons and Gamma rays can be produced when cosmic rays from the Sun or more distant objects strike the moons’ surfaces. Cosmic rays have such high energy that they can dislodge neutrons from the nuclei of atoms. These freed neutrons can escape or collide with other atoms and cause the emission of Gamma rays.

Because neutrons and Gamma rays probe the inner structure of atoms, their energy reveals the types of atoms present in the moons. While the NIRS spectrometer will be able to explain the types of minerals on the moons, the Gamma ray and neutron spectrometer (GRNS) will identify the individual chemical elements, such as iron or oxygen.

On March 22, NASA opened an “Announcement of Opportunity” (AO) to invite proposals for the instrument design. This was followed with a Pre-Proposal conference with NASA and JAXA on April 17, for the potential design teams to ask any clarification questions. The deadline for the proposals is June 20, after which the proposals will be reviewed by both NASA and JAXA who will make a final selection for the instrument design will be made by the end of 2017.

The principal investigator (PI) in charge of the chosen instrument will join the Science Board for the Martian Moons eXploration mission, which issues recommendations to the mission’s project manager from a science perspective.