Southwest Research Institute scientists posit a violent birth of the tiny Martian moons Phobos and Deimos, but on a much smaller scale than the giant impact thought to have resulted in the Earth-Moon system. Their work shows that an impact between proto-Mars and a dwarf-planet-sized object likely produced the two moons, as detailed in a paper published [April 18, 2018] in Science Advances.
The origin of the Red Planet’s small moons has been debated for decades. The question is whether the bodies were asteroids captured intact by Mars gravity or whether the tiny satellites formed from an equatorial disk of debris, as is most consistent with their nearly circular and co-planar orbits. The production of a disk by an impact with Mars seemed promising, but prior models of this process were limited by low numerical resolution and overly simplified modeling techniques.
“Ours is the first self-consistent model to identify the type of impact needed to lead to the formation of Mars’ two small moons,” said lead author Dr. Robin Canup, an associate vice president in the SwRI Space Science and Engineering Division. Canup is one of the leading scientists using large-scale hydrodynamical simulations to model planet-scale collisions, including the prevailing Earth-Moon formation model.
“A key result of the new work is the size of the impactor; we find that a large impactor — similar in size to the largest asteroids Vesta and Ceres — is needed, rather than a giant impactor,” Canup said. “The model also predicts that the two moons are derived primarily from material originating in Mars, so their bulk compositions should be similar to that of Mars for most elements. However, heating of the ejecta and the low escape velocity from Mars suggests that water vapor would have been lost, implying that the moons will be dry if they formed by impact.” [More at links]