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Emily LakdawallaJuly 18, 2007

Conference on the Exploration of Phobos and Deimos

The first announcement of an upcoming conference is getting a little bit of press and notice in various other blogs. The First International Conference on the Exploration of Phobos and Deimos, to be held at NASA Ames November 5-8, will focus on the "Science, Robotic Reconnaissance, and Human Exploration of the Two Moons of Mars." Why the heck would you want to send humans to the moons of Mars? One reason is that it's easier to explore the moons of Mars than Mars itself -- you have the big bulk of Mars to help your spacecraft brake into Mars orbit, but then you can settle your explorers down (and blast them off) with relative ease from the much smaller masses of Mars' tiny moons. The moons probably have porous interiors and maybe even ice, making them attractive spots in the more distant future for setting up a space station (porous means you don't have to dig much to get yourself underground and protected from solar radiation).

First International Conference on the Exploration of Phobos and Deimos

First International Conference on the Exploration of Phobos and Deimos
Conference website »
Another reason that I haven't seen commented on elsewhere is that you might actually consider setting up a base on Phobos or Deimos from which humans could explore Mars. How would that work? It would be a synergy of robotic and human exploration. Exploring Mars on foot is attractive because human explorers have mental agility that is orders of magnitude greater than robots', at least right now. However, dealing with partial gravity, temperature extremes, and the awful Martian dust will be nightmares for human explorers; they'll be able to spend only a tiny fraction of their Mars time actually exploring, with the bulk of their time devoted to just surviving. If we could somehow put humans close enough to Mars to be able to tele-operate robots with no (or virtually no) time lag between the time they send commands and the robots receive them, we could essentially use human minds in robot bodies for Mars exploration. You'd need no Mars space suits, no extensive ground-based infrastructure, just a flying climate-controlled lab in which the humans could sit comfortably while the robots experienced all the climatic hardships. Of course, the experience of the International Space Station has shown us that such a scenario is no walk in the park, but it would certainly be easier than establishing, supplying, and maintaining a permanent base on Mars. And one of Mars' moons -- likely the slower-moving, higher Deimos -- could provide resources already in Mars orbit for base-building. This was one of the ideas in the back of Society Executive Director Lou Friedman's head when he originally envisioned the Red Rover, Red Rover project.

I thought the conference sounded pretty interesting and pointed it out to Lou and Society Director of Projects Bruce Betts -- only to have Lou point out to me that both he and Bruce are on the conference organizing committee, and that The Planetary Society is one of ten cosponsors. Silly me. In addition to our longer-term interest in the exploration of Phobos and Deimos, we are also supporting the development of the LIFE experiment to be sent on the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission.

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Emily Lakdawalla

Solar System Specialist for The Planetary Society
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