December 21, 2018
ESA Releases Stunning Photos Of Mars' 'Winter Wonderland' Near Planet's North Pole

Newly released images from the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission offer a timely look at the water ice near the Red Planet's north pole, showcasing what the agency referred to as a "winter wonderland" at the geographical feature known as the Korolev crater.

As noted by BBC News, the Korolev crater was named after Sergei Korolev, a rocket engineer and spacecraft designer who played a key role in the emergence of the then-Soviet Union's space program in the 1950s and 1960s. The crater measures about 50 miles (82 kilometers) across, and boasts ice water about 1.1 miles (1.8 kilometers) thick and, per Science Alert, is an example of a "cold trap," where Mars' extremely thin layer of air floats over the ice, allowing it to cool down and sink deeper below the rim.

"Since air is a poor conductor of heat, this cold layer acts as an insulator that protects the ice from warmer air, and therefore keeping it from melting," Science Alert added.

All in all, the Korolev crater is believed to contain about 528 cubic miles (2,200 cubic kilometers) of water ice and is estimated as being about 1.2 miles (two kilometers) deep, though there's a chance it could also feature a great deal of Martian dust mixed in with the ice.

The images of the Korolev crater released by ESA on Thursday are composites of various photos taken by the Mars Express' High-Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). According to Time, Twitter users reacted with "unbridled enthusiasm" upon seeing the photos, with several suggesting that the ice-filled crater could make a good Martian skating rink.

In addition to the aforementioned composite images, which reportedly have a resolution of about 69 feet (21 meters) per pixel, the photos taken by the Mars Express' HRSC instrument were also used to put together a topographic map. Per Science Alert, the map dives deeper into the intricacies of the Korolev crater, with different colors indicating its varying elevations and the plain that surrounds the feature.

The ESA's Mars Express probe was launched on June 2, 2003, and got its name from the speed in which it was built compared to other similar planetary missions. According to the Guardian, the mission entered the Martian orbit for the first time on Christmas Day, 2003, though the British Beagle 2 lander, which was launched that same day, was unable to fully open once it reached the Red Planet's surface. Mars Express also marked the first time in ESA history that the agency undertook a planetary mission.