TOKYO -- Japan's space agency unveiled plans Tuesday to launch a probe to Mars' two potato-shaped moons as early as 2022, aiming to retrieve samples that could shed light on the history of the Red Planet.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency project would build on the success of the Hayabusa probe, which collected bits of an asteroid, and seek to make technical advances toward future manned missions to Mars or Earth's moon.
The plan cleared a subcommittee of the government's space policy council. Should the council grant formal approval, Japan's ministry of education would begin seeking funding for the effort in fiscal 2016. Total project costs are estimated at 30 billion yen ($241 million).
The Martian moons were discovered in the 1870s, but their origin remains a mystery. One hypothesis holds that Phobos and Deimos were asteroids that became ensnared by Mars' gravity in the early days of the solar system. Another contends that they were created in a collision between Mars and an asteroid. Rocks and sand from the moons could yield evidence in support of either explanation, as well as answer other questions, like what happened to all the water that astronomers suppose Mars once had.
Russia set out to perform the same feat in 2011 but failed when its probe went off course.