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Today in science: A moon for Mars

American astronomer Asaph Hall discovered Phobos, 1 of the 2 known Martian moons, on this date in 1877.

The Stickney crater at one end of Phobos was created by an impact that could have torn Phobos apart if the moon were less fractured and porous. Image from 2009.  Image credit: NASA

Color-enhanced image of the large crater Stickney on the Martian moon Phobos. The crater is 5.6 miles (9 km) in diameter, meaning it takes up a substantial proportion of Phobos’ surface. Notice the smaller crater within Stickney, about 1.2 miles (2 km) in diameter, resulting from a later impact. Image via HiRISE, MRO, LPL (U. Arizona), NASA.

August 17, 1877. On this date, American astronomer Asaph Hall discovered Phobos, one of two small Martian moons. He found the other moon, which we call Deimos, an even smaller moon than Phobos, later that year. Both Martian moons look more like asteroids than they do like Earth’s large companion moon.

Astronomers named the two moons Phobos and Deimos – Fear and Terror – for the horses that pulled the chariot of the Greek war god Ares, counterpart to the Roman war god Mars.

Phobos is tiny, with a mean diameter of about 14 miles (22.2 km). But it’s more than 7 times as massive than the second moon, Deimos, whose mean diameter is about 7.7 miles (12.4 km). We’re speaking in terms of a mean diameter because both moons are oblong in shape. In contrast, Earth’s moon is nearly round. And it’s much larger, 2,159 miles (3,475 km) in diameter.

Scientists got the first good look at Phobos in 1971 and 1972, during Mariner 9’s mission to the planet. They discovered a large crater that later received the name Stickney Crater, after Chloe Angeline Stickney Hall, wife of Phobos’ discoverer.

bosHere's a view of Phobos and its large Stickney Crater from Viking I.  Viking 1 Orbiter global view of the Martian satellite Phobos. The 10 km diameter Stickney crater is at the left, centered at 5 S, 55 W. The Mars facing point is at the bottom center of Phobos, and the north pole is at about 1:00 from this point. Radiating grooves and crater chains can be seen around Stickney. Phobos is roughly 20 km across in this image.

Phobos and its large crater, named Stickney, as seen by Viking I. The spacecraft acquired this image in June 1977, 100 years after the discovery of Phobos. Image via NASA.

Today, many space scientists believe that the long, shallow grooves lining the surface of Phobos are early signs of the structural failure in the moon. It’s possible that – some 50 million years from now – Phobos will break apart, becoming a ring for Mars.

In 2017, a new theory by Purdue University scientists suggested that Mars’ moon Phobos might not only break apart, and form a ring around the red planet, but also that this ring formation has happened before. David Minton, a professor at Purdue University, and Andrew Hesselbrock, a doctoral student at Purdue, developed a model suggesting that debris that was pushed into space from an asteroid or other body slamming into Mars – some 4.3 billion years ago – now alternates between becoming a planetary ring and clumping up to form the moon Phobos. Read more about that theory here.

Artist’s concept of a ring around the planet Mars, made when Mars’ moon Photos loses its structural integrity, as many scientists believe it eventually will. Illustration via Purdue University.

Asaph Hall probably never imagined the idea of Phobos breaking apart and forming a ring around Mars. And he couldn’t possibly have imagined the video below, which was acquired by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity on August 1, 2013. The rover had been taking a series of shots of the sky above, from Mars’ surface. This video shows both moons, Phobos and Deimos, as you might see them while standing on the surface of Mars. Large craters on Phobos are clearly visible in these images from the surface of Mars.

No previous images from missions to Mars’ surface caught one moon eclipsing the other.

Bottom line: On August 17, 1877, American astronomer Asaph Hall discovered Phobos, one of two Martian moons. He discovered Deimos, the other known Martian moon, later that year.