The MMX and Twinkle Space Telescope Teams meet for a joint strategy meeting to lead the Martian Moon sample collection to success!

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

In December 2022, members of the Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission and the Twinkle Space Telescope held a joint strategy meeting to help ensure the successful collection of a sample from the Martian Moon, Phobos, by the MMX spacecraft.

One of the main objectives of the MMX Project is to clarify the origin of the Martian moons. Currently, there are two main theories for how these two natural satellites of Mars came about. One is the “capture theory” that suggests the moons were once small celestial bodies from outside Martian space that were caught in the gravity of Mars. The other is the “impact theory” whereby a celestial body collided with the surface of Mars and the moons were formed from the debris that was ejected in that impact.

[→ Chalkboard video on the formation of the Martian moons]

Artist impression of the Twinkle Space Telescope (Twinkle / Blue Skies Space).

To understand how the moons formed, the MMX spacecraft will collect a sample of material from Phobos and return this to Earth. The resulting analysis is expected to provide definitive evidence for the moons’ origin. The selection of the landing site from where to gather the sample will be based on observation of Phobos made by the MMX spacecraft, which will be examined for the most scientifically valuable location.

However, the time available from when the MMX spacecraft arrives in the Martian sphere to the time when a landing site must be selected is limited. In order to narrow down the landing site candidates best suited to testing the hypotheses for the origin of the moons, an observation plan is first formulated, then observations of Phobos are taken with the scientific instruments onboard the MMX spacecraft, the acquired data is sent back to Earth, the data is analysed on the ground, and the cycle is repeated with follow-up observation plans created based on the results. This has to happen at a rapid pace, as the MMX team must then conduct training on the selected landing site to prepare for the series of landing and collection operations to ensure they go smoothly. Selecting the landing site in a timely manner is therefore immensely helpful!

Hiroyuki KUROKAWA (credit: ELSI).

To assist with this tight schedule, we have high hopes for the Twinkle Space Telescope. Twinkle is a new space telescope that is scheduled to begin observations in 2024 operated by the UK company Blue Skies Space. As Twinkle can avoid being affected by the Earth’s atmosphere in space, the telescope can observe wavelengths from visible light through to the infrared to explore the existence of materials that are directly related to the origin of the Martian moons, such as water (in the form of hydrous minerals) and organic matter. By observing the Martian moons with Twinkle ahead of the arrival of the MMX spacecraft to the Martian sphere in 2025, we can obtain information that is directly helpful to the operation and observation planning of the MMX spacecraft for selecting a landing site. Since 2019, the MMX and Twinkle teams have therefore been discussing plans for preliminary observations of the moons.

After three years, the MMX and Twinkle teams had their first face-to-face meeting in December 2022 to discuss plans for the Twinkle Space Telescope to observe Phobos in support of the MMX sample return. The Twinkle team shared their preparations for the launch of the space telescope, while the MMX team explained their plans for the mission. In these discussions, the importance for observing Phobos before the arrival of the MMX spacecraft to the Martian sphere was also shared with the Twinkle team. There was also discussion about observing the second Martian moon, Deimos, with Twinkle, as there will be limited opportunities to examine this outer moon with the MMX spacecraft. The MMX and Twinkle teams will continue to work together to study the issues identified in last year’s meeting in order to obtain the best possible high-quality observation data, and prepare for the arrival of MMX to the vicinity of Mars!

Further information:

Blue Skies Space (External Site)

How did the moons of Mars form? (chalkboard video [YouTube])