Dreaming of a Red Christmas: Festive Silhouettes Spotted Near Mars’ South Pole

Festive Silhouettes Near Mars South Pole

Our planetary neighbors are getting into the holiday spirit with this pair of festive silhouettes spotted by ESA’s Mars Express. The defined wings of an angelic figure, complete with halo, can be seen sweeping up and off the top of the frame in this image from Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera, while a large heart sits just right of center. The dark color of these two shapes is due to the composition of the constituent dune fields, which largely contain sands rich in dark, rock-forming minerals that are also found on Earth. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

As the holiday season swiftly approaches, even our planetary neighbors are getting into the spirit – as shown by this perfect pair of festive silhouettes spotted by ESA’s Mars Express.

Near Mars South Pole

This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows a region near Mars’ south pole in wider context. The area outlined by the bold white box indicates the area imaged by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on November 8, 2020, during orbit 21305. Credit: NASA MGS MOLA Science Team

The defined wings of an angelic figure, complete with halo, can be seen sweeping up and off the top of the frame in this image from Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera, while a large heart sits just right of center. These shapes appear to jump out of the light tan — or, in the spirit of the season, eggnog-colored! — surface of Mars; their dark color is a result of the composition of the constituent dune fields, which largely comprise sands rich in dark, rock-forming minerals that are also found on Earth (namely pyroxene and olivine).

This ethereal scene is found in the south polar region of Mars, with the pole itself located directly out of frame to the right (south). The south pole is typically covered in a 1.5 km-thick ice cap measuring around 400 km across and with a volume of 1.6 million cubic kilometres, just over 12% of which is water ice.  The rest of the cap is largely composed of ‘dry ice’ (solid carbon dioxide), which freezes from the atmosphere during winter and then sublimates (turns from a solid to a gas) in the summer.

As Mars’ southern hemisphere is currently experiencing summer, this image shows the planet’s southern polar ice stores at their lowest annual levels.

Angel and Heart on Mars Perspective View

Perspective view: An angel and heart on Mars. This image provides a perspective view of a pair of festive silhouettes – an angel (left) and a heart (right) spotted by ESA’s Mars Express near Mars’ south pole. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

The ‘angel’ and ‘heart’ are both composed of various interesting features. Firstly, the angel’s hand, seen as if reaching to the left, is thought to be a large sublimation pit, a type of feature that forms as ice turns to gas and leaves empty pockets and depressions in the planetary surface (a process that often occurs as the seasons change). Sublimation pits have been seen on other planets in the Solar System, such as Pluto, and can also be seen scattered across the terrain to the right.

Angel and Heart on Mars Topographic View

Topographic view of an angel and heart on Mars. This color-coded topographic image shows a pair of festive silhouettes spotted by ESA’s Mars Express near Mars’ south pole, based on data gathered by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) during orbit 21305 (November 8, 2020). This view is based on a digital terrain model of the region, from which the topography of the landscape can be derived; lower parts of the surface are shown in blues and purples, while higher altitude regions show up in whites, yellows, and reds, as indicated on the scale to the top right. North is to the left. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Moving on to one of the angel’s most distinctive features, its halo, reveals yet more intriguing processes at play. The ‘head’ and halo are formed of an impact crater, created as a body from space flew inwards to collide with Mars’ crust. As this impactor hit it dug down into the surface, revealing the numerous layered deposits that make up the southern polar region. These subsurface layers can be glimpsed in other areas where the surface has been disturbed – areas that are clearly identifiable in the associated topographic view due to their notably low elevation – and hint at the long, complex, interesting history of this part of Mars.

Heart on Mars Perspective View

Perspective view: A heart on Mars. This image provides a perspective view of a heart-shaped silhouette spotted by ESA’s Mars Express near Mars’ south pole. It comprises data gathered by ESA’s Mars Express on November 8, 2020, during orbit 21305. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Finally comes the heart, which is underscored by a steep escarpment – a line of cliffs or steep slopes created by erosive processes – and separated from the dark expanse of dunes below. The origin of this dark material, which is found all over Mars, remains unclear, but scientists posit that it once existed deeper below the surface in layers of material formed by ancient volcanic activity. Although this material was initially buried, it has since been brought to the surface by ongoing impacts and erosion, and then distributed more widely across the planet by martian winds.

This landscape also shows signs of dust devils in the dark, scratched, cross-hatched pattern to the left of the frame. Dust devils are common on Mars, and form as dust is whipped up from the Sun-warmed surface by wind. Here, dust devils have lifted surface material and carried it away, leaving dark marks in their wake.

Angel and Heart on Mars 3D View

A festive scene near Mars’ south pole – in 3D. This anaglyph image shows a pair of festive silhouettes spotted by ESA’s Mars Express near Mars’ south pole in 3D when viewed using red-green or red-blue glasses. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

The south pole of Mars is a fascinating region – and a watery one. Just a few months ago, Mars Express found signs of three new ponds of salty liquid water thought to be buried below the ice here, adding to the discovery of a large underground reservoir in 2018. Although the Red Planet appears dry and lifeless today, it was once far warmer and wetter, much like the early Earth. While the surface may no longer be hospitable to water, its subsurface may remain a friendly environment for ancient lake systems that, excitingly, may hold evidence of life on Mars.

As many gear up for a safe and restful Christmas period, Mars Express will not rest on its laurels; the spacecraft will continue to observe and image our planetary neighbor in detail, as it has done since it entered orbit around Mars in December 2003. The mission has revealed an astonishing amount about Mars in this time, helping us to better understand the planet’s water, geology, chemistry, atmosphere, moons, history, context in the Solar System, and much more.

Be the first to comment on "Dreaming of a Red Christmas: Festive Silhouettes Spotted Near Mars’ South Pole"

Leave a comment

Email address is optional. If provided, your email will not be published or shared.