Mt. Fuji to stand in for Martian moon

Courtesy of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency
A probe will collect rocks from Phobos, the moon of Mars on the left in this artist’s rendering

Researchers will use drones and artificial intelligence to observe Mt. Fuji, in preparation for a project to bring back rocks and other materials from the Martian moon of Phobos.

The MMX project led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is scheduled to launch a probe toward Phobos in fiscal 2024. Phobos is about 20 kilometers in diameter, much larger than the 900-meter-wide asteroid Ryugu from which the Hayabusa2 spacecraft brought back rocks in 2020.

To gain a complete picture of the geological features of Phobos, more data is needed than for Ryugu. However, the volume of data that can be sent to Earth is limited.

This prompted Hideaki Miyamoto, a University of Tokyo professor who specializes in the Earth and planetary science, and other researchers to turn their attention to Mt. Fuji, which has abundant rocks and a base about 40 kilometers in diameter.

Starting in fiscal 2022, the research team will observe Mt. Fuji from above with a drone to see how much data is necessary to ascertain geological details, such as the shape of rocks. The results of the study will be used as a reference when a probe observes Phobos.

“Examining the distribution of rocks on Mt. Fuji, which is similar in size to Phobos, will be good practice for the exploring the moon,” Miyamoto said.

The MMX project aims to land a probe on Phobos, and bring back rocks and sand to Earth in fiscal 2029. If successful, it is expected to be the first collection of samples from the Martian atmosphere.