In the past, it has been suggested that Phobos is an artificial object launched by a hypothetical civilization that inhabited Mars in ancient times.
In 1945, the American astronomer Bevan Sharpless detected an acceleration of Phobos that could not be explained as the result of a disturbance in the thin Martian atmosphere. The information did not receive special attention until it was collected by the Soviet astrophysicist Iósif Shklovsky, who in 1959 proposed that the satellite could be a hollow object and speculated that it was an artificial satellite launched by an alien civilization formerly present on the planet.
The artificial Martian moon hypothesis gained some notoriety. It was revived in 1966 by Shklovsky himself in the book Intelligent Life in the Universe written by Carl Sagan. The accompanying controversy led to new astrometric observations that confirmed Sharpless’s initial measurement.
Since then, different probes sent into Martian orbit have analyzed and photographed this moon on several occasions. Among them, the Mars Express of the European Space Agency (ESA) launched in 2003, which has recently received a new software update for its Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) instrument that has allowed it to delve into the enigma of Phobos.
“We are still at an early stage of our analysis,” Andrea Cicchetti, a member of the MARSIS team at the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics, said in a press release published a few days ago. “But we have already seen possible signs of previously unknown features below the surface of the moon. We are excited to see the role that MARSIS could play in finally solving the mystery surrounding the origin of Phobos.”
The Unknown origin Of Phobos
Phobos, along with Deimos, are the two moons of Mars, ominously named after the Greek gods of fear and panic. Neither, it’s worth noting, is particularly like a “normal” moon. Both are small—Phobos is less than 17 miles across—and look more like lumpy asteroids than a spherical moon like Earth.
These strange but fascinating features, along with their supposed asteroid-like compositions, have divided astronomers over their origins for a long time.
“Whether Mars’ two small moons are captured asteroids or made of material ripped off Mars during a collision is an open question,” said Mars Express scientist Colin Wilson. “Their appearance suggests they were asteroids, but the way they orbit Mars arguably suggests otherwise.”
Artificial Structure Under Phobos
That’s where MARSIS comes in. With an antenna over 130 feet long, MARSIS is capable of firing low-frequency radio waves that can penetrate deep into the core of Phobos. While many of the waves don’t make it through the surface, those that do bounce between internal structures and the boundaries of different materials inside the minimoon.
Examining these reflections, captured on a “radargram,” could give scientists a better picture of Phobos’s subsurface structures, as well as its overall composition. The bright lines on the radargram indicate more or less innocuous surface reflections, but the scientists say there is evidence of weaker “bottom reflections” that could be signs of underground structures.
To get to the bottom of this mystery, ESA will collaborate with the Japanese Space Agency to collect samples from the surface of Phobos on the Martian Moon Exploration (MMX) mission, currently scheduled to launch in 2024.
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