In 40 million years, Mars may have a ring (and one fewer moon)
Nothing lasts forever – especially Phobos, one of the two small moons orbiting Mars. The moonlet is spiraling closer and closer to the Red Planet on its way toward an inevitable collision with its host. But a new study suggests that pieces of Phobos will get a second life as a ring around the rocky planet.
A moon – or moonlet – in orbit around a planet has three possible destinies. If it is just the right distance from its host, it will stay in orbit indefinitely. If it’s beyond that point of equilibrium, it will slowly drift away. (This is the situation with the moon; as it gradually pulls away from Earth, its orbit is growing by about 1.5 inches per year.) And if a moon starts out on the too-close side, its orbit will keep shrinking until there is no distance left between it and its host planet.
The Martian ring will last for at least 1 million years – and perhaps for as long as 100 million years, according to the study.
The rest of Phobos will probably remain intact, until it hits the Martian surface. But it won’t be a direct impact; instead, the moonlet’s remains will strike at an oblique angle, skipping along the surface like a smooth stone on a calm lake.
This has probably happened before – scientists believe a group of elliptical craters on the Martian surface were caused by a small moon that skidded to its demise. (If this were to happen on Earth, our planet’s greater mass would produce a crash as big as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, the researchers noted as an aside.)
Tushar Mittal using Celestia 2001-2010, Celestia Development Team.