Sons of War: The view from Phobos

The crackling airwaves reverberate with the ethereal radio noise of the universe. You’re sitting cross-legged in fine regolith staring out into the big empty. You reach down and tune the receiver on your space suit, trying to lock in some broadcasts from Mars.

It’s pretty quiet down there today.  Traffic is slow. There sure as hell isn’t too much happening here today. Not even commercial vessels hover over the skyline of this tiny moon.  Phobos is alone with its thoughts on this Martian Sol,  and so are you.

view
Come to Phobos! Spectacular views!

It’s a good place to get away. When you’re after some quiet time, you don’t mess around. Mars is a hub of busy-busy, as a melting pot of factions; corporate, government and private explore and carve it up. Maps are being drawn down there, maps of the future.

Mars rolls slowly beneath you. Phobos’ orbit brings it close to the red planet. With a semi-major axis of 9377 kilometres, Phobos makes a closest approach to its parent body than any other satellite or moon in the Solar System. By contrast, Phobos’ little brother; Deimos has a semi-major axis of 23460 kilometres. IF you were standing on the surface of Mars you might just see Deimos as a point of light, something like the folks back on Earth see Venus in the morning and at dusk.

At The Martian equator Phobos is about 1/3 the size of the full moon as seen on Earth.  Artist’s impression.

So, why “Sons of War?”

Asaph Hall, who inadvertently discovered the pair in 1877 after some pushing from his wife (after which Stickney Crater was named), had a penchant for ancient Greece it seems. Phobos and Dieimos were the sons of the Greek god of war; Ares! (Mars to the Romans.) Phobos meant panic and Dieimos meant fear.

They sounded like a handful for their old man!

The universe is a gift. What else can it be? Every single day seems to bring something new and completely interesting. Sometimes you need to hunt for it, and sometimes it’s right there, hiding in plain sight.  You’ve been known to have a fascination with the phenomenon. You never thought sitting up here on this nondescript pile of rubble could be so interesting. All alone with this incredible vista you look down at Mars and think about tossing your tickets back home out into space. It wouldn’t take much. Here on Phobos you are your own launch system. Phobos is the ultimate destination for weight loss. Back on earth you weigh in at just over one hundred kilograms. Here on this tiny little rock you weigh just over 60 grams! That’s right! You and your little sister’s black and white kitten weigh the same right now!

How cute.

Ha! You’re a lightweight like me! Puny human!

It makes going for a walk tricky though. In the first few years of the Great Mars Rush Phobos was a hotspot. Stickney Crater, that 6 mile wide basin swallowing up one end of the moon became an overnight spaceport, with Hamer Station becoming a sprawl of impossible architecture in a couple of years. People being what they are, didn’t really look before they leapt: literally. Rescuing floating space tourists who’d become new martian moons after tripping over a piece of regolith became a profitable cottage industry. Magnetic boots won’t work here of course. The terrain is almost entirely regolith: powdered rock formed by millennia of impacts. In fact, gravity is so low that with every step you carefully take a cloud of dust slowly puffs up, taking several minutes to descend back to the ground behind you.

You’re holding onto a handrail, one of several hundred which stretch for collectively dozens of miles around the moon. These handrails were the workaround some bright spark came up with in the early days. Straight out of an OH&S* manual, these rails are pretty much all that keeps you from launching yourself into the Big Empty.

Because gravity is so light, you can’t really “feel” the terrain. Probably if you weighed your actual 100 kilos, you’d sink into the several metres of regolith beneath you. It’d be like dry quicksand. Beneath all that are voids; a handy feature of the moon. Phobos is about one-third empty space. It’s a feature of the moon’s formation. Back when Mars was in its infancy something huge crashed into it, like an interplanetary T-Rex.

Space is rough.

A lot of Mars was kicked up into space, forming a secondary cloud of dust and rock around what was left of it. Some of this matter clumped and glommed together, under gravity’s inexorable pull, and moons formed. Phobos and Deimos are the last survivors of these martian offspring. They are piles of rubble. Imagine you’re an extra in a disaster movie, where a building has collapsed on your head, and you play a survivor, trapped in the rubble. All the bits of the building don’t fall down in an orderly manner. This would be an entirely different universe if they did.

Just imagine physics lessons!

Anyway. Survivors, trapped under fallen rubble. Girders, chunks of concrete and twisted metal have fallen randomly, strewn in a completely chaotic heap of mess, under which our film extras wait for the heroic star to pull them out. Phobos is like this. Chunks of randomly shaped Mars have simply fallen together, resulting in an odd honeycomb of dark empty caverns and spaces, which are now used by humanity, which is rapidly filling them up with the detritus of colonisation and industry. Even living quarters. Like some bizarre sentient ant colony humans hide underground here. It’s a refuge from some crazy space radiation, the same as that bombarding and frying electronics down on Mars.

Mars is virtually zipping past. Phobos has an extremely fast orbit. Right now you are sailing around the red planet, completing an orbit in just over seven hours. Deimos, all alone out there lags behind, making the journey in just over thirty hours. You’re holding the handrail tight, but part of you wants to let go, to reach out for the Red Planet. It really is moving fast, now that Humanity is here.

To paraphrase Kim Stanley Robinson: “Once Mars was a dream. Now, it was a place.”

Valles Marineris, the longest and deepest canyon in the Solar System. Stretching away into the future, like a new Wild West.

The Japanese Space Agency is currently putting together a mission to not only explore the moons of Mars, but to return samples to Earth. Good luck guys. Follow them on Twitter to keep up with their progress and mission updates:

 

P.S.

I’m currently having fun putting together a live streaming segment on Periscope called “Cosmos-scope” It is a lot of fun, mainly because I’m learning a lot about astronomy again from researching for it, and I think it may  feature a lot in the comings and goings of Ben’s Lab.

Cheers!

 

Ben.

*Occupational Health and Safety

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