A newly released image of Mars shows an icy scene with red and white bands dancing across a frosty landscape near the planet’s south pole.
While the snowy scene may evoke the feeling of a “winter wonderland” on the Red Planet, it was actually captured on May 19 by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express Orbiter. This means that the cold image actually represents springtime in the southern hemisphere of Mars as Mars ice began to recede.
Just six days before much of Earth marks a New Year, the Red Planet will begin its own New Year on December 26, which will last 687 Earth days. The planet has four seasons, winter, spring, summer and autumn, and just like Earth, winter on the Red Planet is cold and summer is warm, although winter is much colder than ours and temperatures on Mars up to fall to minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 60 degrees Celsius).
Related: This icy crater near the north pole of Mars is a winter wonderland (Photos)
The Christmas season is also something special for Mars Express: Christmas Day 2022 marks the 19th anniversary of the arrival of the spacecraft on Mars.
Arguably the most striking features in the newly released image are two massive impact craters banded with alternating layers of water ice and sediment called “polar strata deposits.” These deposits can also be seen in the ridge that stretches between the two craters.
As the ice is depleted, higher-elevation regions appear frost-free, and dark dunes jut through surface frost in other areas throughout the image. Dune fields appear as sharp ridges running parallel to the prevailing wind direction and consistent with the shape of underlying features.
Scientists believe the dust that fills these dunes is dark because it comes from buried material from volcanoes that erupted in Mars’ ancient history and were eventually exposed to strong Martian winds that carried it easily across the red planet’s surface.
Other dark spots in the image represent this dust and the effect of jets erupting through the icy surface as the underlying carbon dioxide ice is directly gasified, a process called sublimation. These jets shoot dust geysers into the Martian atmosphere and then settle in dark patches on the planet’s surface.
However, these are not the only elements in the image caused by sublimation. The polar region is broken by a series of large, irregularly shaped features formed by sublimating ice. These look like empty lakes carved into the Martian surface, a clear example of which can be seen in the upper left corner of the new image.
Monitoring these features from orbit means scientists can observe the processes shaping the surface of Mars and changing the appearance of the polar regions.
But the picture of springtime in Mars’ southern hemisphere isn’t just replete with surface features. Also visible are hazy clouds over the Martian surface. These clouds, seen particularly in the center of the image, contain water ice, and their trajectory is influenced in part by the topography of the surface terrain below them.
During the Martian winter, both Martian poles deposit carbon dioxide as ice, which then thaws and sublimates in the spring. The release of gas back into the Martian atmosphere increases atmospheric pressure and causes strong winds.
These winds, in turn, drive the tremendous exchange of materials between the surface and atmosphere of Mars throughout the Martian year.
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