NEEP602 Course Notes (Fall 1996)
Resources from Space

Neal et al. 1989

NAS9-17779 - Phase III
Final Report
pp. 181-191

6.0 Considerations for EVA on Phobos

NASA's present thinking about a human expedition to Mars includes a visit to the Martian moon Phobos, either as a precursor mission or as a sortie from the interplanetary exploration spacecraft. It is speculated that Phobos could serve as a staging ground and source of certain resources for the manned mission to Mars. However, a detailed scenario for human exploration of Phobos has not yet been formulated, largely because little is known about the environment there. Hopes for new information from reconnaissance and sampling by the Soviet probes to Phobos were disappointed when the spacecraft failed en route (1989).

Despite the saps in present knowledge, the prospects of a manned mission to Phobos are intriguing. The study team was requested to consider EVA on Phobos as a sidelight to our analysis of advanced EVA systems design requirements. Our guidance was not to present definitive requirements but to engage in creative brainstorming, raise in a preliminary fashion some of the basic issues for Phobos EVA, and offer some possible approaches or solutions as "food for thought." The results of this thoughtful exercise are presented here as practical matters to be considered by mission planners.


The environment of Phobos presents severe technical challenges for EVA and a set of concerns that differs quite markedly from those for Mars. Gravity is 0.001 and there appear to be no landscape features or surface amenities to enable a vehicle or crew to land there. A free crewmember on the surface of Phobos will be in constant risk of "launching" himself; some sort of reliable restraint will be essential, but the surface may not be amenable to standard anchors. Some cracks and surface depressions could be filled with up to 5 meters of debris and dust, making translation and restraint difficult, especially if these actions raise dust clouds around the crew. The carbonaceous chondrite surface may pose some problems for the design of effective spacecraft tether and holding systems.

Phobos Environment (Verrerka, 1988)

In 0.001-g, without effective surface attraction, EVA on Phobos probably will have more in common with orbital EVA than with activities on the surface of the moon or Mars. For the crew, the experience might be likened to working on a large, dusty, and unequipped spacecraft.

The requirement for EVA at Phobos needs to be understood better and justified in view of the cost of developing supporting technology peculiar to a Phobos mission. A human expedition on Phobos raises a variety of unique questions.


Three alternatives for Phobos surface exploration were discussed by the study team. They are presented here for consideration with the caution that EVA on Phobos raises more issues than can be solved with our current understanding of the characteristics of this unusual EVA setting.

An exploration team has been sent to the Martian moon Phobos to set up science stations and communications antennas and to return surface samples to the Mars orbiting station for analysis and characterization.

Composed of four crewmembers, the exploration team is similar in all respects to the Mars surface exploration crews, and their operations are similar with two major exceptions: the explorers operate from their spacecraft rather than a surface habitat, and all activity is performed in milli-g rather than one-third-g. For the purpose of this narrative, it is assumed that the Phobos excursion spacecraft is a Mars landing module that is employed prior to itS use on the Martian surface.

As the excursion craft approaches th.e orbit of Phobos, it makes attitude and velocity corrections to co-orbit with the moon. Detailed inspection of the surface of Phobos is made from this standoff position. Using visual and other instruments, the crew determine the composition and density of the surface soil. This task is necessary to verify earlier assumptions about the makeup of Phobos and the type of restraint systems that will be required during any manned surface exploration, surface craft landing attempt, or installation of science and communications packages. Photographic and video records are made of all phases of the inspection.

When it has been determined that the surface can support manned inspection and installation of equipment, the crew of two EVA scientists prepare to launch their surface module just as they would for the Mars surface mission. The surface module, or a near-surface vehicle if more appropriate for the composition of the regolith, is launched; it will be returned to the spacecraft after the Phobos inspection for use in the Mars landing. For this first scenario, we assume that an actual surface landing is possible.

Landing on the surface of Phobos, the crew deploy the required holding and vehicle restraint system, which may be automatically deployed devices such as screws or piton claws. Egressing from the surface module, the crew use tethers to leave the vehicle and begin implanting pitons and guys along the surface route. Both equipment and crew must be tethered to this lifeline during the mission. It is advisable to use semi-automatic equipment to install the pitons and guy wire along the selected translation route to reduce crew workload in the milli-g environment.

The crew install the first science or communications package on the surface. restrain it to the surface, and deploy any required components. Activation of science packages can be done immediately after checkout; activation of communications packages may require an automatic delay if RF energy would pose a threat to the well-being of the EVA crew during any mission phases. The EVA crew report back to the orbiting station their progress and discoveries, and the two members in the orbiting vehicle closely monitor the surface crew's progress and status.

The EVA crew then go to the next designated site and set up the next equipment package, installing the tether lifeline along the route. At the conclusion of the surface EVA, the crew use the lifeline to translate back to the surface module and prepare for ascent to the orbiting station.

The requirement to be tethered to the Phobos surface while performing the exploratory EVA might be mitigated by using MMU-type propulsion systems. This approach would depend upon the regolith composition and any thruster plume disturbance on the surface, which might raise unacceptable amounts of dust and powder. The use of MMUs also might mean that the crew could work directly from the orbiting station, shuttling equipment between the station and the Phobos surface and not having to use a surface module. The feasibility of this second scenario would depend upon a much better understanding of the characteristics of Phobos than is currently available.

A third scenario would not involve either a lander or an MMU-type of approach to Phobos, but would rely on deployment of a Module Web from an exploration and crew support module orbiting Phobos in a stationary alignment. The Module Web, shown in Figure 6-1, would consist of at least three cable loops fired from the orbiting module into the surface of Phobos, with one end of each loop remaining at the orbiter With three loops firmly attached to the surface, the crew and equipment could be lowered to the surface on a taut tether from the orbiter. As the end of any one of the surface cables is retracted inside the orbiter, the other ends of all the cables, now harnessed together, are drawn to the Phobos surface. This tension and retraction method of going to the surface and being able to remain there would require upward thrust by the orbiter to compensate for the downward tug of the tension cables.

Once on the surface, the crew can translate anywhere within the boundary of the triangle defined by the three surface points which hold the cable loops. Equipment can be shuttled to the surface on tethers and set up anywhere within the triangle. When the exploration and installation tasks are accomplished, the crew ride up the center tether and unharness the cables from the orbiter. The orbiter returns to the interplanetary vehicle or maneuvers to another location over Phobos, where the crew repeat the web building for another EVA.


Given the hypothetical nature of the mission scenario, this discussion of possible requirements is not intended to be definitive. It is, however, pragmatically suggestive.

6.3.1 General

6.3.2 Spacecraft features

6.3.3 Surface Installations

6.3.4 EVA Crew Aids


Assuming that daytime EVA on Phobos is more appealing for crew safety and efficiency than EVA in the dark, light will be a primary consideration in mission planning. Assessment of the orbital mechanics of Phobos and Mars reveals that part of the moon may be a more suitable site for initial EVA.

The orbital period of Phobos is approximately 7 1/2 hours, of which about 3/4 hour is in Mars shadow at worst case (equinoctial alignment). At solstitial alignment, Phobos does not pass through Mars' shadow (see Figures 6-2 and 6-3).

Phobos rotates once per orbit, with the same end always toward the center of Mars. Thus, Phobos has day/night cycles (7 1/2 hours) with any given site in direct sunlight for about 3 3/4 hours during each cycle (disregarding Mars shadow passage) (see Figure 6-4). However, the nadir end of Phobos receives reflected light from the Mars dayside surface during the time the nadir end is away from the sun. Thus, as the nadir end passes into its solar dark phase, it begins to receive light from the Mars surface. At local high noon on its dayside pass, the nadir end of Phobos is illuminated by reflected light from the sunlit Mars "disk," the diameter of which subtends an angle of about 40o.

During the solstitial phase, Phobos' nadir end is in continuous light, and during the equinoctial phase, the nadir end is in darkness for approximately 3/4 hour of each orbit. Thus, the nadir end of Phobos appears to be a prime candidate site for an initial EVA mission if light is a major consideration.

Note also that the nadir end of Phobos will be the most easily observable site from a low orbiting spacecraft (e.g., command spacecraft), and rendezvous from lower orbit is usually easier to execute from below (toward the nadir end).

The thermal environment of Phobos should be roughly analogous to lunar conditions, but colder. The radiation environment also should be roughly analogous to the moon with a peculiar exception. It may be possible to execute a retrograde synchronous orbit around Phobos at a low altitude so as to stay always on the down sun side of Phobos. The purpose of this maneuver would be to use the mass of Phobos for radiation shielding. The orbital mechanics of such a maneuver need to be verified.

While none of these considerations is an overriding issue in selecting a Phobos landing site, they are potential factors for mission planning.

Back to Lecture 23

University of Wisconsin logo

University of Wisconsin Fusion Technology Institute  · 439 Engineering Research Building  · 1500 Engineering Drive  · Madison WI 53706-1609  · Telephone: (608) 263-2352  · Fax: (608) 263-4499  · Email:

Copyright © 2003 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. For feedback or accessibility issues, contact
This page last updated August 21, 2003.