Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day we feature a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

October 2, 1995
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Phobos: Doomed Moon of Mars
Credit: NASA/ JPL Viking Project

Explanation: Mars, the red planet named for the Roman god of war, has two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos, whose names are derived from the Greek for Fear and Panic. These Martian moons may well be captured asteroids originating in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter or perhaps from even more distant reaches of the Solar System. In this 1977 Viking orbiter image, the largest moon, Phobos, is seen to be a heavily cratered asteroid-like object. It is about 17 miles across and zips through the Martian sky completing an orbit in less than 8 hours. Phobos is doomed. It orbits so close to Mars, (about 3,600 miles above the surface compared to 250,000 miles for our Moon) that gravitational tidal forces are dragging it down. In 100 million years or so it could crash into the surface or be shattered by stress caused by the relentless tidal forces, the debris forming a ring around Mars.

Tomorrow's picture: Deimos: Small Martian Moon

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Authors & editors: Robert Nemiroff (GMU) & Jerry Bonnell (USRA).
NASA Technical Rep.: Sherri Calvo. Specific rights apply.
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