ROVER MMX: Heading for Phobos
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is preparing a Martian Moons eXploration (MMX), scheduled to be launched in 2024. The mission is expected to reach Phobos – one of the moons of Mars – in 2025. This important step in space exploration and research should allow us to better understand the history of our solar system, as well as the beginnings of life on Earth.
The origin of Phobos and Deimos, Mars’ moons, has long been a source of dispute among scientists. Their low albedo (the fraction of light that a surface reflects) and their density, which is like those of C-type asteroids, suggest that they may have been primitive celestial bodies “captured” by Mars. Nonetheless, they have a very circular orbit, which does not correspond to that of a captured object – in particular since Mars’ atmosphere is too weak to slow down their course.
Recent studies suggest that these moons were formed by debris from the giant collision that created the red planet itself some 4.5 billion years ago. This would explain their composition, which is like that of Mars, as well as their orbit.
Explore, analyze, prepare
The ambitious JAXA mission should provide answers to many questions about the moons of Mars and their relationship with the red planet. Thanks to cooperation between the French National Center for Space Studies (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the mission will be equipped with a rover that will be released as a scout at an altitude of less than 100 meters. Its first landing will be on the surface of Phobos, where it will explore the composition and characteristics of the soil of this Martian moon, helping JAXA to prepare its own landing sequence. Samples weighing between 10 and 100 g will then be brought back to Earth and analyzed in the laboratory, with results expected in 2029.
Assembly, integration, test
The first rover to be entirely designed by CNES, MMX’s architecture was co-developed with the German Space Agency. With more than 20 years of experience in space engineering, ALTEN teams have been involved in all stages of its assembly, integration and testing (AIT). They have worked on the integration of the solar generator, the communication tests between the rover and the Rolbox (electronic box installed on board the probe), and the final functional tests, including the validation of equipment operability over the hot and cold temperature ranges expected during the mission. These tests were carried out at the Toulouse Space Center in France.
Light as a tool
ALTEN has also contributed to the integration of the MMX InfraRed Spectrometer (MIRS), a near-infrared imaging spectrometer. MIRS will collect the light reflected by the surfaces of Phobos, Deimos and Mars and, according to the different absorbed wavelengths, will determine their mineralogical composition. France’s LESIA (Laboratoire d’Études Spatiales et d’Instrumentation en Astrophysique) took the lead in developing MIRS in collaboration with four other French laboratories: the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Bordeaux (LAB), the Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux, Observations Spatiales (LATMOS), the Observatoire Midi-Pyrénées (OMP), and the Institut Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie (IRAP).