Orbiting a mere 6,000 kilometres (3,700 miles) above the surface of Mars, Phobos is closer to its planet than any other moon in the Solar System. Mars’ gravity is drawing in Phobos, the larger of its two moons, by about 2 metres (6.6 feet) every hundred years. Scientists expect the moon to be pulled apart in 30 to 50 million years.
Other than gathering evidence of its eventual fate, NASA scientists are also closer to solving the mystery of how Mars’ moon Phobos formed.
In late November and early December 2015, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission made a series of close approaches to the Martian moon Phobos, collecting data from within 500 kilometres (300 miles) of the moon.
The observations were made by the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph instrument aboard MAVEN. Among the data returned were spectral images of Phobos in the ultraviolet. The images will allow MAVEN scientists to better assess the composition of this enigmatic object, whose origin is unknown.
Comparing MAVEN’s images and spectra of the surface of Phobos to similar data from asteroids and meteorites will help planetary scientists understand the moon’s origin — whether it is a captured asteroid or was formed in orbit around Mars. The MAVEN data, when fully analysed, will also help scientists look for organic molecules on the surface. Evidence for such molecules has been reported by previous measurements from the ultraviolet spectrograph on ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft.