Discussion and news about the modern effort to understand the nature of life on Earth, finding planets around other stars, and the search for life elsewhere in the universe

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Exploring Mars from Phobos

There is no doubt that Mars remains a hugely important target in astrobiology, planetary science, and even human exploration. Between our increasingly good understanding of Martian water distribution (from polar regions to lower latitudes), and the extraordinary observations of a summer plume of some 19,000 metric tons of methane, it is a planet full of tantalizing clues.

The right strategy for exploring Mars is tricky, it has to balance scientific goals, technical feasibility, the potentially delicate nature of the Martian system - possibly even its ecosystem - and budgets. I was incredibly fortunate yesterday to have the opportunity to join a conversation with Buzz Aldrin. He brought up the idea that the Martian moon Phobos represents a perfect 'base' for exploration of all kinds. The more I think about it, the better an idea it seems. He made the point that human control over surface rovers is horribly inefficient when the human is sitting on Earth sipping tea. It takes between 10 and 20 minutes for light to travel from the Earth to Mars and back again, depending on where the planets are in their orbits. Controlling a rover on Mars becomes a matter of sending complex 'instructions for the day' and having the rover cautiously inch its way around.

Suppose instead the human operator was perched on the 'underside' of Phobos - which is tidally locked to always face the same way towards Mars. Phobos is about 2000 miles above the surface of the planet and zips around the equator every 7 hours or so. Combined with a couple of communication satellites you could have near instantaneous contact with almost any location. All manner of robotic devices could be sent off to roam Mars, even atmospheric drones - flying the dusty skies - with direct supervision and piloting. In the meantime, the biologically dirty humans sit on Phobos sipping their tea and keeping their microbes off the planet. It's also much, much easier to land and escape from a place like this, there are likely raw materials - even water - places to hide from damaging radiation, and Phobos itself is of immense scientific interest, potentially offering clues to planetary origins in the solar system.

So, perhaps the best way to explore Mars is to go to Phobos.


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samrx said...

For my it is amazing the idea of colonizing another planet, but I read that there is an unknown force that deviates all efforts to land a probe in mars.

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