Helping build instrument for Japanese Mars mission 'a favorite time' for new NASA astronaut (exclusive)

a gold-foil-covered spacecraft on the surface of a rocky moon
Illustration of the Martian Moons eXploration lander on the surface of a moon, with Mars behind. (Image credit: JAXA)

A new NASA astronaut already has a space mission ready for launch, but (spoiler alert!) he won't be on the rocket.

NASA astronaut Andre Douglas, and a large international team, worked on the Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) mission, which is slated lift off in late 2026. Douglas played a role in creating a key Mars instrument while he was employed at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Baltimore, prior to joining NASA.

"That was a favorite time," Douglas told on March 5 of his days as an engineer at APL. He no longer has time for that work, as he passed basic training to be an astronaut this month and is now supporting future crewed missions while awaiting his own space seat.

But work on MMX continues, and this week NASA and APL celebrated a big milestone: the U.S. instrument, MEGANE, was shipped to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The instrument will soon be included on the Japanese-led spacecraft and tested ahead of launch.

Related: Japan delays MMX Mars moon sample-return mission to 2026

MEGANE stands for Mars-moon Exploration with Gamma Ray and Neutrons. The instrument aims to support MMX's major goal of figuring out the composition of the two Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos. That's key to figuring out many long-running Red Planet mysteries, such as whether these two tiny moons are captured asteroids or if they formed from some other process.

NASA astronaut Andre Douglas during spacewalk or extravehicular activity training at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston. (Image credit: NASA/James Blair)

MEGANE's gamma ray spectrometer aims to map the types and amounts of elements on the surface of these two moons, Douglas explained, particularly for Phobos — the moon MMX will land on to return a sample to Earth

"That (instrument) will help us understand the composition of the moon itself and how that moon came to be. Did it come from Mars? Did it come from somewhere else, and get captured in the orbit?"

Douglas paid tribute to his work with JAXA on that mission, saying that it helped him prepare for his time as an astronaut. JAXA is a major partner both on the International Space Station and on NASA's Artemis program, which aims to land astronauts on the moon in the 2020s, for example.

"That was a really cool project," Douglas said of MEGANE. "And I'll get to work with [JAXA] on other projects, here at NASA, as part of the routine."

MMX is not the only project Douglas worked on at APL. He was part of a team that created a proposal to study the sun's behavior, called SIHLA, or Spatial/Spectral Imaging of Heliospheric Lyman Alpha. SIHLA was not selected for spaceflight on NASA's Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP), but it did make the semi-finals. The proposal may also be helpful for future missions.

Additionally, Douglas wrote some of the software for NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission that slammed into an asteroid moonlet in 2022 as planned. Douglas lauded DART's contributions to planetary defense, as it showed that a small celestrial body's orbit can be altered by collision: "Very awesome. First time we ever did it."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: