Antonio Manaytay – Fourth Estate Contributor
Pasadena, CA, United States (4E) – The major question whether Phobos is a captured asteroid or a bit of Mars takes center stage after Mars Odyssey orbiter finally has gained its first look at the Martian moon on September 29 using its Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) camera to examine its infrared wavelength.
NASA researchers scrambled to combine the visible wavelengths and the infrared information from THEMIS in a bid to gain a deeper understanding of the Martian moon. The results of which are important because the moon has been eyed as a future outpost for human missions. The oblong-shaped Phobos has a diameter of 14 miles (22 kilometers), a small fraction of Earth’s moon which has a diameter of 2, 159 miles (3, 465 kilometers).
It has long been suspected that Phobos and even its smaller brethren Deimos are captured asteroids due to Mars gravity or they are parts of the Red Planet itself cast out into space by the impact.
“Part of the observed face of Phobos was in pre-dawn darkness, part in morning daylight,” THEMIS deputy principal investigator Victoria Hamilton said. Hamilton is based in Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio.
The left to right sequence of the images of Phobos representing the different times of the day could give the researchers the idea what kind of ground surface the Martian moon has. Terrestrial experience indicates that sands warm or cool faster than the rocky surface.
The pre-dawn observation is useful because “all the heating from the previous day’s sunshine has reached its minimum.”
“As you go from predawn area to morning area you get to watch the heating behavior,” Hamilton said.
Previous Mars orbiters had taken the images of the Martian moon at a higher resolution. But only the THEMIS camera was able to provide infrared information. Studying the different bands of the thermal-infrared wavelengths could give away the information on the moon’s mineral composition and its texture.
This information, Hamilton said, might reveal the nature and origin of the Martian moon.
Mars Odyssey orbiter is the longest-lived mission to the Red Planet. It started orbiting Mars in 2001.
The September 29 observation could pave the way for more observations of the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos.
“We now have the capability of rotating the spacecraft for THEMIS observations, Odyssey project scientist Jeffrey Plaut of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said.
“There is heightened interest in Phobos because of the possibility that future astronauts could perhaps use it as an outpost,” he said.
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