First up-close Mars moon pics unveiled

European Space Agency today showed off the first in a series of extreme close-up photos of the Mars moon Phobos

ESA Mars Express photos 3.7.10
The European Space Agency today showed off the first in a series of extreme close-up photos of the Mars moon Phobos. The photos, which show a pock-marked but otherwise relatively smooth surface, are the some closest shots of the Mars moon ever taken.   

The data and photos collected by the Mars Express satellite could help unwrap some of the mystery about the moon, the ESA said. Three scenarios are possible, one, that the moon is actually a captured asteroid. The second is that it formed at the same time as Mars formed below it. The third is that Phobos formed later than Mars, out of debris flung into Martian orbit when a large meteorite struck the red planet, according to the ESA. 

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From the ESA Web site describing the photos: Phobos is an irregular body measuring some 27 × 22 × 19 km. Its origin is debated. It appears to share many surface characteristics with the class of 'carbonaceous C-type' asteroids, which suggests it might have been captured from this population. However, it is difficult to explain either the capture mechanism or the subsequent evolution of the orbit into the equatorial plane of Mars. An alternative hypothesis is that it formed around Mars, and is therefore a remnant from the planetary formation period.  Mars Express so far has taken photos on March  7, 10 and 13. According to ESA, Mars Express will continue to fly past Phobos until the end of March. 

Mars has two tiny moons--Phobos and Deimos.  According to NASA, the larger moon, Phobos, is a cratered, asteroid-like object and orbits so close to Mars that gravitational tidal forces are dragging it down. In 100 million years or so, Phobos likely will be shattered by stress caused by the relentless tidal forces, the debris forming a decaying ring around Mars, according to NASA. 

The Mars Express's main mission has been to explore the planet Mars. Some of its goals have been to image the entire surface at high resolution (10 meters/pixel) and selected areas at super resolution (2 meters/pixel) and to produce a map of the mineral composition of the surface at 100 meter resolution. 

ESA Mars Express Photo 3.7.110
The Mars Express, which the agency launched in 2003, will ultimately set a new record for the closest pass to Phobos, skimming toward the surface at 50 km - or about 31 miles, the ESA said.  

It also has as a mission to image the proposed landing sites for the oft-delayed Russian Mars mission Phobos-Grunt mission, which will land on the Martian moon, collect a soil sample and return it to Earth.  That mission is targeted for sometime in 2011. 

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