Dec 04 2008
China and Russia continue preparations to visit Mars’ moon Phobos together in 2009, according to Mars Daily (12/1/08). This unmanned trek is the first joint interplanetary mission between the two major space powers, and will also be the first interplanetary sample return flight from either a moon or a planet.
This ambitious, joint Phobos mission is more convincing evidence that the next spectacular Maslow Window looms not that far in our future (expected in 2015). Indeed, Chinese astronomer Yang Liwei already speaks in Maslow Window-style phrases, “Our national strength has risen. It’s a road that we absolutely must travel.” And it’s the smart road too!
It’s the “smart road” to Mars because, every two years, the delta-V — a measure of the propulsive energy required for the mission — from Earth-to-Phobos and return is only about 1/2 the delta-V required for an Earth-to-Lunar-Surface loop! In other words, the shocking fact is that, in energy terms, it’s actually easier to get to Phobos than it is to our own Moon! When I first realized this at General Dynamics, it became the centerpiece of our humans to Mars strategy.
Although one of the darkest objects in the solar system, Phobos still has a colorful past, having been thought of momentarily (in the 1950s) as a hollow, artificial satellite apparently orbited by Martians. Better observations of its orbit confirmed its naturalness as well as its mortality: Phobos is condemned by tidal forces to impact Mars in 11 million years.
As a key part of the Sino-Russian Phobos team, Hong Kong Polytechnic University has been developing a small, cigarette pack-sized rock processor that will reduce Phobos’ surface materials to a fine powder for in situ analysis in the Phobos lander. After successfully landing/rendezvousing on Phobos’ milli-g surface, the Phobos Explorer will select rocks and soil for the trip back to Earth for detailed scientific analysis.
While initially scientific, interest in Phobos is also futuristic. Phobos is a low-density, porous world with carbonaceous chondrite composition…and it may have water in some form beneath its surface layer. Everytime I look at Phobos I see a gas station! Pull up your spacecraft, check the tires, clean the windshield, and fill ‘er up with inexpensive propellants from Phobos!
In 1989 General Dynamics Corporation funded a closer look at my fantasy of establishing an interplanetary economy based on water mined at Phobos (and/or Deimos) that’s transported to Earth orbit and/or the Moon depending on where the demand is. Using regular chemical rockets we could deliver 2000 mT of Martian moon waters to Earth orbit each mission; profits/savings versus launches from Earth are in the $ 1.5-3.0 B range. Depending on how much the Phobos Water Plant costs to setup, the breakeven point would be 5 – 10 years from the first mission. Are you working up your 2015 Maslow Window business plan?
The Chinese and Russians are smart to focus on Phobos. It’s the 21st Century key to the colonization of Mars and expansion of humans into the outer solar system.