Mining Phobos and Deimos

Visiting the moon is one thing. It’s a difficult, complicated, dangerous, and exciting thing. But it’s also a thing that we have done before. Sending people to Mars is a whole new ballgame. Instead of a few days of travel, future Mars astronauts will likely be looking at a six month trip there, and at least as long to get back, with an extended stay on Mars in the middle. And of course, there’s the whole problem of landing safely and then launching back out of Mars’ gravity well with enough speed to get all the way back to Earth.

These complications have led some to consider an intermediate step between sending astronauts to the Moon and sending them to Mars: send people to the moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos. Last week at LPSC, I spoke to Sanjaykumar Vasadia about his poster proposing exactly that.

The idea behind a mission to Phobos and/or Deimos is that they are easier to get to than the surface of Mars because they are quite small, so landing on them would be more like docking with them. We could send people to one of Mars’ moons to gain experience in a long-duration mission without the risky landing at the end. Also, since Phobos and Deimos are probably captured asteroids, we could learn a lot about asteroids in the process. Finally, the real heart of Vasadia’s poster was that there are resources on Phobos and Deimos that can be used in space exploration.

Asteroids are well known for having lots of free metals: instead of iron ore, many asteroids simply have lumps of metallic iron and nickel in them. Also, Vasadia argued that there may be a significant amount of water in Phobos or Deimos. I had never heard of this, and when I pressed him on it, he said that their low density must be due to the presence of ice inside them. I am pretty skeptical about this: there is a evidence that many asteroids are not very dense, but that it is simply due to the fact that they are “rubble piles” rather than single monolithic rocks. Still, if we assume for the moment that Phobos or Deimos do have significant amounts of water, that would be great news for space exploration. Some of the best rocket fuel can be made by simply splitting water into its components: hydrogen and oxygen.

Vasadia envisions a solar-powered mining station on Phobos and Deimos that can generate valuable metal resources to send back to earth or down to the Martian surface. The station would also serve as a spaceport and refueling station for missions coming back from and going to the Martian surface.


It sounds like science fiction, and much of it probably is, but the idea of in-situ resource utilization, or “living off the land” will be vital for successful human missions. In spite of some problems with the proposal discussed here, I think that a human mission to Phobos or Deimos is a great idea. It makes sense scientifically to study Mars’ moons, and it provides a valuable intermediate step between landing on Earth’s Moon and landing on Mars.

Explore posts in the same categories: Humans in Space, LPSC

7 Comments on “Mining Phobos and Deimos”

  1. schildan Says:

    Would the lack of gravity make development and or landing rather difficult? If I were to spend six months traveling to another world, I would want to do a conventional walk on the surface when I got there, but how would you even hike on the surface without gravity?

    Maybe this is a silly question. I don’t know anything about space stuff. Just wondered what you thought

  2. Michael West Says:


    I’m an Australian aerospace engineer who has been working with the Mars Institute and Dr Pascal Lee (of Haugton Mars Project fame) on investigating the rationale behind human exploration of Phobos and Deimos as a precursor to human exploration of Mars. You may be interested in the checking out the website of the 1st International Conference on Phobos & Deimos Exploration that we run last November at NASA Ames. I also wrote some thoughts during the conference on my blog (Conference Preparations, Day One, Day Two and Day Three) and you can found a copy of my abstract as a PDF from that conference here – it’s basically all about why we should send humans to these moons. Some time in the future I will write a full paper on this topic. I’ve got a PhD to finish first!

    Cheers from Down Under,

    Michael West

    • W. Richard Gray Says:

      G’di(phonetic)! I lived in your country for awhile and loved it! A couple of us science guys in the Tucson L5 Space Society are trying to learn and lecture about asteroids and going to Mars’ moons and wonder, if you are not still working on your PhD, whether you would like to colaborate?! Good on ya! Richard

  3. Ryan Says:

    I think in the case of mining, the lack of gravity could actually be helpful. It’s much easier to move around tons of ore if you can just nudge them in the right direction… Of course, there could be drawbacks too, and one would be that walking on the surface wouldn’t really be possible. It would probably be more like pulling yourself along a rope that has been staked down.

  4. John Frazer Says:

    Former Astronaut Dr. Brain O’Leary wrote a book “Mars 1999” a long time ago, in it, he suggested that the first manned mision to Mars might not even be prepared to land opn Mars. Rather they mine water for consumeables and fuels, and to send back to Earth space at every opportunity. He suggested that a base with shielded spinning (1 G) habs be built (shielded with regolith), so that crews don’t need to be rotated home. Each shot from Earth builds up the base, explores Mars, and prepares for manned landings, heavily supported from the orbiting infrastructure.

    Similar (important) ideas in the article
    D L Kuck, May 1997, “The Deimos Water Company”

    See also

    John Frazer
    Founding member, Mars Society

  5. […] Mining Technology on Phobos and Deimos that has also sparked some interesting discussions over at The Martian Chronicles. There were also some presentations the Grooves on Phobos and Results from the Hyperspectral Imager […]

  6. Charles Ferguson Says:

    I think that given the very high cost of going to Mars and how long it takes to get there, in addition to the difficulties of dealing with the very low gravity of Phobos and Deimos, we could accomplish far more by focusing on developing the moon for at least the next few decades.

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