Picture of an icy crater on Mars received at the time of Christmas

Mars is looking like a cool, brisk station this time of year, especially in this picture recently released by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter. The image shows the icy heart of the perpetually frosty Korolev crater, and is one of a few snapshots sent back from Mars’ automated travellers to Earth this holiday season.

The Korolev crater formed sometime in Mars’ chaotic past, when another object banged into the northern lowlands of the planet, leaving a scar fifty miles wide and more than a mile deep. Dust and water ice slowly stockpiled, building up into a glacier that has nearly filled the hole left behind by that long-ago collision.

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What appears to be a bowl of fresh snow in this imagery released by the European Space Agency (ESA) on Thursday (Dec. 20) is actually an ice deposit chilling the air moving over it, agency officials said in a statement.

Ice is found in the deepest parts of this formation, called Korolev Crater, and as air moves over the ice, it cools down and sinks, producing cold air right above the chilly deposit.

The High Resolution Stereo Camera on the space agency’s Mars Express satellite captured five different “strips” of the crater, each one coming from a different orbit of the spacecraft. By combining them, a single image was produced.

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Mars Express has a connection with Christmas — the mission first fired its main engine to enter into Martian orbit on Dec. 25, 2003, after a roughly six-month journey from Earth. Mars Express is the agency’s first spacecraft to explore another planet, but its high-resolution stereoscopic camera and mineralogical mapping spectrometer originated with an earlier mission called Mars 96, which failed shortly after launch on Nov. 16, 1996.

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