NASA captures a new 3D view of Mars’s moon Phobos

NASA You’d think that Mars’s moon Phobos – a 13.5-mile wide lump of brownish rock full of craters – wouldn’t be the most interesting place in the Solar System to take photos. But then space exploration does tend to throw up a lot of surprises.

One of NASA’s Mars probes recently captured the above image, and it’s revealing some fascinating details about something most people probably didn’t even know existed.

The most obvious thing about Phobos is the huge crater on the bottom-right of the image. Scientists say that its slight bluish color means it hasn’t been exposed to space as long as the rest of the moon, meaning the impact that produced the crater could have been quite recent.

Wikipedia Phobos may also be home to water-ice and materials rich in carbon, which is why a Russian-Chinese mission to collect samples from Phobos is expected to launch next summer.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped the new shot of Phobos from 4000 miles away, so I’m pretty impressed that the detail’s so good. In the full size image each pixel represents 22 feet (6.8 meters), so you can zoom in quite a lot. (Click here to download the full-size image. Be warned! It’s a 20mb file, so if you’re still using ancient dial-up be prepared to wait a few hours.) It’s really cool zooming in on the thousands of craters dotting the moon, especially the ones on the edge of the Moon and on the day-night border.

Phobos and Deimos What else is so great about the new image? OK, several probes have imaged Phobos before, but because MRO took two photos you can actually see the photo in 3D if you’ve got some of those special glasses.

The image also shows landslides around the massive crater (Stickney crater), and you can see some craters in the dark region illuminated by Mars-shine. This is when light from the Sun reflects off Mars onto Phobos, and it happens with the Earth and our Moon too – take a look next time there’s a crescent Moon.

Above all, I just think it’s amazing that yet another bit our Universe is proving to be so interesting. Before I heard about this photo I just though Phobos was a boring old lump of rock, but as you can see it’s actually a pretty interesting corner of our Solar System after all.

Want to know more about the Red Planet? See the Solar System’s biggest volcano in 3D, see photos of the first ever avalanche captured on Mars, and read why radiation may prevent humans from ever visiting it.

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Radiation may prevent humans ever going to Mars

MSNBC / NASA

It’s amazing that the human race is now close to sending a person to another planet for the first time in the history of civilization – NASA hopes to put a man on Mars by 2030, or at least not too long after. But why will it take 20 years? Well, there are loads of problems scientists have to overcome like the psychological impacts of a 2-3 year Wikipedia / NASA trip, the problem of having enough food and water, and finding a fuel that would be powerful enough to power a heavy craft to Mars.

But there’s something perhaps even more important that people often overlook, and it’s something that could affect long-term missions to the Moon too – radiation from the Sun. It’s proving to be a huge stumbling block.

Our Sun constantly bombards our planet – and everywhere else in the Solar System – with a stream of assorted particles, many of which would be harmful to humans if we were exposed to them. In fact, these ‘cosmic rays’, as they’re sometimes also known, were the main thing that prevented life on Earth originating until a billion or so years after its creation. Only when a few resistant bacteria (and lots Wikipedia / NASA of volcanoes) started producing gases to produce an atmosphere could more advanced life develop.

Any mission to space obviously involves going outside our atmosphere, which means leaving the shield that protects us from solar radiation. Even with complex spacesuits, modern astronauts frequently see white flashes of light as solar particles interact with their eyes.

But if astronauts can cope with solar radiation now (for example on Shuttle missions and at the ISS), why wouldn’t they be able to cope on a Moon base or on Mars?

The problem is that unlike on the Shuttle or ISS, astronauts walking around on the Moon or Mars would have only their spacesuits to protect them. On a Moon base the astronauts would be exposed to radiation for days until they finished building the base, Wikipedia / NASA and on Mars the astronauts would want to spend several weeks exploring to make the 2-3 year journey worthwhile. All that radiation would build up, and could trigger things like cancer and tumors.

What’s the solution? It’s basically just a matter of trying to research better and better lightweight protection that can be used for spacesuits – but that could take many years yet. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take too long.

Check out my last post to find out what happens when solar radiation collides with our atmosphere: aurora. There’s a cool image of aurora from space.

Mars in 3D for the first time

The new 3D view from Mars Express | Image: National Geographic / ESA We’ve seen Mars from an aerial view, we’ve seen it from the ground, but what about in 3D? Well now we can do that too, thanks to Europe’s Mars Express probe.

The 3D shot (right) of Olympus Mons, the biggest volcano or mountain anywhere in the Solar System, shows the topography of Mars in unprecedented detail. There are amazing possibilities for this kind of information when it is combined with aerial views, such as the one to the below.

But why do we want to know loads about the altitudes of different bits of Mars? Well, it could actually play a pivotal role in the search for life, because by analyzing the altitudes of hills and surface features, scientists are able to tell where water has once flowed. It is thought that life could only ever have existed where water was present.

An aerial view of Olympus Mons | Image: WikipediaAnother big question: how on Earth do you get 3D shots like this? The obvious first thought would be radar or lasers, which NASA has previously used on its Mars Global Surveyor mission. However, these only provide the height at the exact point under the probe.

To get detailed measurements over a wide area, Mars Express used a technique that involved taking three photos: one slightly before it was overhead Olympus Mons, one above it, and one slightly after it had flown over it. By combining these three different angles, scientists were able to construct a 3D image.

We’ve only just started our exploration of Mars; there are loads more probes set to explore the Red Planet before 2030, NASA’s target date for the First Man on Mars. It’s a pretty exciting time to be in for space exploration! The Mars Express probe | Image: ESA