An ongoing satellite–ring cycle of Mars and the origins of Phobos and Deimos

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The Martian moons Phobos and Deimos may have accreted from a ring of impact debris, but explaining their origin from a single giant impact has proven difficult. One clue may lie in the orbit of Phobos that is slowly decaying as the satellite undergoes tidal interactions with Mars. In about 70 million years, Phobos is predicted to reach the location of tidal breakup and break apart to form a new ring around the planet. Here we use numerical simulations to suggest that the resulting ring will viscously spread to eventually deposit about 80% of debris onto Mars; the remaining 20% of debris will accrete into a new generation of satellites. Furthermore, we propose that this process has occurred repeatedly throughout Martian history. In our simulations, beginning with a large satellite formed after a giant impact with early Mars, we find that between three and seven ring–satellite cycles over the past 4.3 billion years can explain Phobos and Deimos as they are observed today. Such a scenario implies the deposition of significant ring material onto Mars during each cycle. We hypothesize that some anomalous sedimentary deposits observed on Mars may be linked to these periodic episodes of ring deposition.

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Figure 1: Formation of Phobos through the evolution of the previous two ring–satellite cycles.
Figure 2: History of Martian satellites as calculated by RING-MOONS.


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The authors would like to thank B. Horgan, M. Ćuk, E. Asphaug, A. Jackson and K. Walsh for their advice and support. A.J.H. was supported under the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship: 16-PLANET16F-0127. D.A.M. was supported under the NASA Emerging Worlds Grant: NNX16AI31G.

Author information

Both A.J.H. and D.A.M. designed the study, discussed the results, and wrote the paper. A.J.H. developed the computer model, performed the simulations, analysed the results, and produced the tables and figures.

Correspondence to Andrew J. Hesselbrock.

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Hesselbrock, A., Minton, D. An ongoing satellite–ring cycle of Mars and the origins of Phobos and Deimos. Nature Geosci 10, 266–269 (2017) doi:10.1038/ngeo2916

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