Scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, have reported that the shallow, long grooves marking the surface of Phobos, Mars’ largest moon, might be an indication that the moon might disintegrate between 30 to 50 years.
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Phobos is one of the two moons of Mars and the largest, orbiting 3,700 miles or 6,000 km above its parent planet. This distance makes it closer to Mars than any other moon within the solar system, causing the gravity pull of Mars to draw Phobos closer.
Scientists estimate Phobos is being pulled closer to Mars by about 6.6 feet or 2 meters every 100 years, creating the fear that the mysterious object might be gone in 50 million years.
“We think that Phobos has already started to fail, and the first sign of this failure is the production of these grooves,” said Terry Hurford of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Hurford and his colleagues presented their findings at the annual Meeting of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society at National Harbor, Maryland, on November 10.
Scientists had earlier thought the grooves on Phobos were fractures that were caused by impacts that developed at the Stickney crater; because the impact of the collision was very strong and almost destroyed the moon. But researchers have now found that the grooves radiate from a closer focal point and not from the crater itself.
Other scientists had also thought materials ejected from Mars may have impacted the surface of Phobos, but Hurford and his associates were able to demonstrate through modeling that the grooves were something of a stretch-mark created when the moon hit tidal forces.
The tidal forces are created when gravitational forces between Mars and Phobos stretch each other, just like the Earth and our moon are impacted by gravity that affects ocean levels and then make the Earth and the moon look oblong sometimes instead of their round shapes.
The issue now is that Phobos is estimated to contain piles and rubbles that are held together with a layer of powdery regolith of 330 feet or 100 meters thick.
“The funny thing about the result is that it shows Phobos has a kind of mildly cohesive outer fabric,” said Erik Asphaug of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University in Tempe and a co-investigator on the study. “This makes sense when you think about powdery materials in microgravity, but it's quite non-intuitive.”
The estimated content of Phobos makes it subject to distortions, and the stress that is building within the body can cause the outer layer to fail. This is also the position that Triton, Neptune’s moon is – it is falling inward and its surface is fractured, a sign of impending peril to it.
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“We can’t image those distant planets to see what’s going on, but this work can help us understand those systems, because any kind of planet falling into its host star could get torn apart in the same way,” said Hurford.