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2 December, 2019 - 23:27 By Kate Sweeney

Japanese space mission will bring back pieces of Mars’ moon

A UK team led by the Open University in Milton Keynes has given the green light for Mars’ moon material to be transported to Earth as part of a forthcoming mission.

The team, led by the OU’s Dr Manish Patel – a renowned expert on Mars exploration, agreed for a new Japanese mission to bring pieces of Mars’ moon back to this planet to aid future exploration.

His team at The Open University, including partners at Public Health England, Fluid Gravity Engineering Ltd, Thales Alenia Space UK and Kallisto Consultancy, spent three years analysing whether the material would provide a risk of contamination. This research provided crucial research to the global space regulatory authority – COSPAR.

The Japanese mission is going to Phobos, a moon next door to Mars which is likely to contain material ejected from the Red Planet. Their MMX Martian Moons Explorer Mission is due in the next decade.

Dr Patel’s research, funded by the European Space Agency, looked at whether unsterilised material from Mars – which might therefore contain life – could be present on Phobos.

Stringent laboratory tests were carried out to determine if micro-organisms could survive the transfer from Mars to Phobos – and therefore still be present when the extracts were brought to Earth.

Dr Patel said: “If life exists, or ever existed, on Mars, there is a possibility that material containing organisms could be present on Phobos and be collected by a sample return mission such as the Japanese Martian Moons eXplorer.”

Given the proximity of Phobos to Mars, Mars’ potential to have supported life, and the possibility of material transfer from Mars to Phobos over millions of years, careful consideration of planetary protection is required, he said.

Dealing with “major unknowns” the OU’s lab-based team had to consider the “best-case scenario” for organism survival, considering the size of sample the MMX mission would bring back. 

They then measured this against the COSPAR risk-reduction requirement – a probability of less than one in a million – to see whether it would remain compliant and match up with planetary protection rules.

In the lab, the team used simulated or “artificial” samples of Mars and Phobos. They used a gun-like apparatus and a heating apparatus to “shoot and burn” these samples to replicate what would happen if they were thrown through space as a result of meteorite impact. 

They also did radiation tests to simulate how material on Phobos would be exposed to radiation from space and combined the results using theoretical models.

Dr Patel said: “These Japanese missions are incredibly interesting to study the history of Mars, to find out key information and understand how the Mars system has evolved. For instance, we still don’t know the origin of Mars’ moons. So, this is a fantastic area of research to be involved in and will inform our own investigations too.”

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