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NASA mulling expedition to Martian moon Phobos

Phobos taken by Mars Express
Phobos taken by Mars ExpressPhoto by Handout/Getty Images

According to a Tuesday story in Space News, NASA is looking at a visit to the Martian moon Phobos as an intermediate mission sometime between the Asteroid Redirect Mission and a human landing on Mars. An expedition to one or the other of the Martian moons has been on NASA’s list of possible deep space scenarios since at least the report of the National Commission on Space in 1986. It would seem to satisfy some but not all of the demands that NASA’s space exploration road map be fleshed out.

At one time Phobos was seen as the perfect way station to the Martian surface. It was believed to contain the sort of volatiles that could be turned into rocket fuel, thus making it a refueling location. But thanks to the European Mars Express orbiter, that scenario has been placed in some doubt. Phobos may be nothing more than a rubble pile.

Nevertheless, NASA is developing the concept of a Phobos expedition, which would be kind of a dry run for the Mars landing just as the Apollo 8 lunar orbital mission was a precursor for the Apollo 11 moon landing. The mission would involve s scaled up version of the robotic craft NASA is developing for the ARM. However, as with much of NASA’s space exploration plan, it would require an increase in the space agency’s currently flat budget.

The Phobos plan does not address a concern raised by Congress and many outside aerospace experts, recently articulated in the National Research Council Report, that a return to the moon is vital in any space exploration pathway. Not only would lunar surface operations serve as practice for a Mars expedition, but the moon is an attractive destination in its own right, with advantages ranging from political prestige, to scientific exploration, to access to vital minerals, some of which could be used to make rocket fuel for spacecraft headed for Mars,

Thus far NASA is resisting demands that it revisit a return to the moon. The space agency is being responsive to President Obama’s firm mandate that the moon is not under consideration. Also neither the president nor Congress seems to be willing to allocate funding for lunar expeditions.