The European Space Agency (ESA) has captured what appears to be a large patch of immaculate snow in the Korolev crater on Mars.
That’s some 55 million kilometres away from our Christmas celebrations.
The photograph, which at a quick glance could be mistaken for a snowy peak in the Andes, was taken by the Mars Express, the first planetary mission carried out by the ESA.
The craft arrived at Mars in 2003 and is celebrating 15 continuous years in space. It’s currently the second-longest surviving active spacecraft orbiting around a planet other than Earth, only surpassed by NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey, which has been circling our red neighbour for 17 years.
Located in the northern lowlands of Mars, Korolev is a particularly well-preserved example of a Martian crater some 82 kilometres in diameter. It was named after Russian spacecraft designer and rocket engineer Sergei Korolev, who is often considered the father of Soviet space technology for his contribution to the Sputnik and Vostok programs – the latter being the one that famously took cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space.
Although it looks like snow, what we see in the picture is actually ice. According to ESA, the centre of the crater hosts a mound of water ice about 1.8 kilometres thick.
The Korolev crater acts like a trap for low temperatures, making it difficult for these deposits of ice to melt.
“The very deepest parts of Korolev crater, those containing ice, act as a natural cold trap,” the ESA explained in a blog post.
“The air moving over the deposit of ice cools down and sinks, creating a layer of cold air that sits directly above the ice itself.”
This layer of air acts like a shield that prevents the ice from heating up and thawing, making it look like Christmas in Korolev all year round.