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Japan greenlights mission to bring back sample of Mars moon Phobos

This might end up being the first round-trip journey to the Martian system.

Mars' moon Phobos is larger than its sibling Deimos.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Japan's space agency JAXA has some solid experience with collecting samples from space rocks, as with its Hayabusa2 asteroid mission. It wants to turn that expertise toward Mars moon Phobos with its Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) project.

JAXA announced on Wednesday that it's officially moving MMX into the development phase, which will focus on building the mission hardware and software.

The ambitious mission will send a spacecraft to visit the two moons of Mars -- Phobos and Deimos. JAXA selected Phobos as a landing site. MMX will touch down on the surface for several hours, deploy a corer, and gather up material from the moon's surface to bring back to Earth.

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Phobos is the larger of the Mars moons, but it's still only 17 miles (27 kilometers) across. It has a funky, potato-like shape and is covered with impact craters. JAXA hopes to answer questions about how Mars' two moons formed. 

The mission will also investigate the radiation environment and test  technologies designed to land on a low-gravity body like Phobos. Other space agencies, including NASA and the European Space Agency, are on board to provide instruments, making this mission an international collaboration. 

MMX has a planned launch date in 2024.