The potato shaped moons, Deimos and Phobos, have very porous material. There are ice contents inside Phobos’cavities, where the tidal forces cause a lot of energy dissipation. Using simulations, the team traveled back in time to when the two moons’ orbits intersect. This is around 1 and 2.7 billion years in the past.
They’re considerably bigger than the potatoes that you might find in your local supermarket. But, if you magnified those potatoes you would have the perfect comparison for the two potato shaped moons, Phobos and Deimos that circle the dusty red planet in our solar system. This article will explore exactly how far we have come in our exploration of these distant little potato shaped moons.
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23km and 6km wide respectively, to be exact, with a gravitational pull not even strong enough to give them a spherical form. For this reason, they have a potato-like appearance. It is believed that they were once part of the asteroid belt, until they were kicked out by the gravity of Jupiter and towards the orbit of Mars. The two little potato-shaped moons were discovered by Asaph Hall in 1877.
With a radius of only 7 miles (11.27 kilometers), Phobos is a tiny inner moon orbiting close to its parent planet. Like its sister Deimos, it circles the planet in a nearly circular orbit, zipping around so fast that it rises twice a day in the Martian sky. In addition, Phobos has a very low density that suggests a highly porous interior. These two facts suggest that the potato shaped moons formed in orbit around Mars, perhaps following an impact.
This view of the Martian potato shaped moons Phobos and Deimos comes from a set of photos taken by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity on Aug. 1, 2013, as Phobos (the larger one) passed in front of Deimos from Curiosity’s perspective.
At the same time, studies of the surface of both Phobos and Deimos, the potato shaped moons have shown similarities to asteroids from the nearby asteroid belt, which circles the sun between Mars and Jupiter. The potato shaped moons themselves aren’t spherical but instead appear lumpy and disfigured, providing a visual resemblance to the chunks of rock in the asteroid belt.
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One of the identifying features of most moons is their recognisable spherical shape. However, the potato shaped moons of Mars – Phobos and Deimos -are quite different than most known moons. They have a very odd shape, which geophysicist Amirhossein Bagheri called “potato-shaped” because of the rugged, irregular surface. Because of their asteroid-like shape, people have always wondered if they were in fact once space rocks floating in the vast, endless cosmos and simply pulled in by Mars gravity and stayed there.
The potato shaped moons of Mars may have started with a huge collision with a protoplanet one third the mass of Mars that formed a ring around Mars. The inner part of the ring formed a large moon. Gravitational interactions between this potato shaped moons and the outer ring formed Phobos and Deimos. The surface of the potato shaped moons and their orbits hint at different origins. But new models provide stronger suggestions that Phobos, at least, may be a captured asteroid.
Phobos is closer to Mars than Deimos and is making its way towards the planet at a rate of 2 meters per year. Not something to worry about for now, but in 50 to 100 million years it may crash into Mars. This would destroy any life that may come to exist on the planet during that time. There is however, a chance that the gravitational pull of Mars could rip Phobos into millions of pieces. You could consider this to be a natural defence by the planet. There is evidence of debris impact on Phobos.
This image of Phobos was taken in August of 1998 by the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) aboard the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. The high-resolution image shows new details of the surface of Phobos, the largest of two satellites orbiting the Red Planet.
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As far as the original potato shaped moons is concerned, the team says it orbited Mars at a greater distance than Phobos today. Deimos, owing to its smaller mass, has remained roughly at the distance this original potato shaped moons was orbiting on. The more massive Phobos, however, has been drawn closer by tidal forces, and this process is still ongoing.
The team’s simulations show that Deimos will keep drifting away from Mars (much like Earth’s Moon is doing), while Phobos will keep inching towards the surface. They estimate either an impact taking place in the next 40 million years or so, or for Phobos to break down under the strain of Mars’ gravity as it comes nearer.
Deimos is 1027.6x smaller than Earth. Deimos is 56% smaller than its brother Phobos, making it the smaller of the two potato shaped moons. Unlike Earth’s moon, which is round, Deimos is shaped like a lumpy potato. The potato shaped moons does not have any atmosphere due to it being so little and no gravity too low maintain one.
Less than 6000 miles from Mars, it is believed that explosions on the red planet have thrown debris into the sky. This caused craters and avalanches to form in the potato shaped moon’s surface.
Unlike Phobos, Deimos is slowly saying farewell to Mars. The smaller of the two potato shaped moons, Deimos will leave Mars within the next few hundred million years. Once it has been cast off into space, Mars will go from a planet with two potato shaped moons to a planet with none. Maybe that’s what happens when a planet takes its potato shaped moons for granted.
The two seemingly insignificant and unimpressive potato shaped moons actually contain important information for us on planet Earth. Confirming exactly how the potatoes formed will allow us to understand how planets formed around our sun.
There have been attempts to explore the potato shaped moons of Mars already. In 2011, two spacecraft were sent by Russia, but failed miserably in their mission. One of them became stuck in Earth’s orbit and crashed back down onto home soil.
The Mars Potato Shaped Moons exploration mission of 2024 aims to visit the two potato shaped moons in order to collect samples that will be returned to earth. Perhaps then, we can discover exactly where these two little potatoes originated from.