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UMD Researcher Joins Japanese Space Agency-led Mars Exploration Mission

By Robert Herschbach

A University of Maryland expert on the dusty surfaces of moons and asteroids has joined the Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission, which will launch a spacecraft to Phobos, the larger of the planet’s two moons, in 2024.

Christine Hartzell, associate professor of aerospace engineering and director of the Planetary Surfaces and Spacecraft Lab, is one of 10 U.S. scientists tapped by NASA for the mission, led by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency in partnership with France’s National Center for Space Studies and the German Aerospace Center.

Following a roughly yearlong journey, the MMX spacecraft will land on Phobos twice to collect samples. The rover it deploys will be the first vehicle ever to travel on the surface of a Martian moon, or in an environment of such low gravity. Rover deployment on Phobos is expected in 2027, with the craft spending 100 days exploring the moon.

Scientists hope the findings will reveal specifics that can’t be gleaned from remote data, thus providing insights that could help explain Phobos’s origins. Hartzell will use her analytical expertise and modeling tools developed at her lab to investigate, among other things, whether clumps on the surface are rocks or smaller particles stuck together. Scientists may be able to extrapolate the findings to other bodies in the solar system in ways that have implications for space exploration, Hartzell said.

“If we observe clumps on Phobos in this mission, it would be an indication that such clumps also occur on other bodies in the solar system,” she said. “Right now, we look at remote images of what seem to be rocks on asteroids or comets, but we’re not really sure what they are. If it turns out they are just clumps that crumble and fall apart, this could lead us to rethink how we design the wheels, other equipment and operational procedures for other missions to other bodies.”

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