MMX, Idefix® and cameras to understand the Mars moon

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• Studying the formation and origins of the moons of Mars, and bringing back samples: this is the ambitious international mission led by JAXA, in which ISAE-SUPAERO is participating alongside CNES.
• Recent tests carried out at the Institute by planetologist Naomi Murdoch and her team have demonstrated the performance of the cameras that will be on board during the mission.

MMX, for Martian Moon eXploration, is a mission of the Japan’s space agency, JAXA, scheduled for launch into the Martian system in late 2026. This mission offers a unique opportunity to study the surface properties of Mars’ moons (Phobos and Deimos), as well as the dynamics of regolith on small bodies.

To achieve this goal, the MMX probe will deploy a rover on the surface of Phobos after at least 18 months of observation of the moon, the time needed to determine the best landing site. Idefix®, named after the famous travelling companion of two no less famous Gauls, is a rover designed by CNES and the German space agency (DLR) in record time.

Cameras on wheels

Sent as a scout, this little robot will be the first of its kind to attempt to move around on a low-gravity surface using wheels. Among other things, it will be equipped with two wheel cameras (WheelCams) mounted under its body, whose images will help us to understand some properties of Phobos’ surface.

How will this be achieved? “By determining, for example, wheel depression, wheel traction and trench morphology,” explains Naomi Murdoch, a planetary scientist at ISAE-SUPAERO. “This information will be invaluable for understanding the geological history of Phobos as well as surface processes, in addition to being very important for the landing operations of the MMX main probe on Phobos.”

An important step in the project was to verify the quality of the images provided by the WheelCams, on a representative Phobos floor, “with only a few LEDs on the rover’s belly to illuminate the scene”, explains the planetary scientist. “Understanding the Phobos floor using this scientific instrument will help define a better landing strategy for the probe. WheelCams therefore reduce the risks associated with landing. ”Without quality images to study the Phobos soil, landing the probe responsible for collecting and bringing back samples would indeed be more complex.

“Phobos is one of the darkest bodies in the solar system. So we needed to make sure that the LEDs illuminating the scene would be sufficient to make images while the rover was rolling along. The simulations gave us fairly pessimistic estimates, but this is the kind of case where nothing can replace a well-executed experiment” explains Julien Baroukh, system manager for the Rover MMX project at CNES.

Testing in real-life conditions

To answer this question, teams from CNES and ISAE-SUPAERO have come up with a real-life test using a camera qualification model.

This qualification model is an exact reproduction of a flight WheelCam. It has been mounted on the ISAE-SUPAERO test bench designed and built for the needs of the mission in 2021 by two Master of Aerospace Engineering students under the supervision of the DEOS (Electronic, Optronic and Signal Department) team. This research equipment recreates the conditions that the MMX rover will observe with the WheelCams during the mission. (click here to find out more about the test bench.)

Wheelcams missions MMX / IDEFIX / CNES / ISAE-SUPAERO

Image explanation: top, the WheelCam qualification camera (CNES) mounted on the MMX rover bench at ISAE-SUPAERO. Bottom left, the image taken with the front WheelCam qualification model. Bottom right, image taken with a camera on the ISAE-SUPAERO bench representative of the rover’s rear WheelCam.

The WheelCam tests were carried out at ISAE-SUPAERO, in the school’s Department of Electronics, Optronics and Signals (DEOS/SSPA), under the supervision of Naomi Murdoch and in close collaboration with Valérian Lalucaa, who is responsible for the instrument on the CNES side", explains Alice Amsili, Image Processing Engineer at ISAE-SUPAERO. “They have enabled us to demonstrate the performance of the cameras that will be on board the MMX mission.

The next step is to develop the tools needed to analyze and interpret the WheelCam images.

A new stage for the school’s researchers in this extraordinary scientific adventure.

Wheelcams missions MMX / IDEFIX / CNES / ISAE-SUPAERO

Image explanation: an example of the 3D reconstruction of the trench behind the rover (bottom) using representative images from the WheelCams (top).

Le régolithe désigne la fine couche de poussière recouvrant les planètes sans atmosphère ou les satellites naturels. Elle est un des objets d’étude de Naomi Murdoch, physicienne et planétologue de l’ISAE-SUPAERO. En savoir plus sur ses travaux de recherche :


Naomi Murdoch, Researcher in planetology and space instrumentation

As a researcher in the Space Systems for Planetary Applications (SSPA) team, I am active in several planetary exploration missions. My research aims to improve our understanding of the physical properties of asteroids and planets, with a particular focus on the behavior of planetary surfaces in low gravity. This is important for understanding the processes that shape our solar system, preparing planetary space missions and improving the quality of data interpretation from space instrumentation. 2024 is a big professional year for me, with the award of my “Habilitation à Diriger des Recherches” (HDR), the start of my ERC GRAVITE project this summer, followed by the launch in October of the Hera mission; a European planetary defense mission in which I’m very involved.

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