The Mars Express orbiter has sent a festive postcard back to Earth just in time for the holidays. On Thursday, the European Space Agency (ESA) released the spacecraft’s viewof a “winter wonderland” of ice inside Korolev crater.
The crater is located at the Martian north pole, so it may as well be the imaginary headquarters for the Martian Santa Claus. It may also be a not-so-imaginary home for humans one day, as igloo-like domes at the Martian north pole have been floated as one possibility for inhabiting the planet.
The image is especially timely because Mars Express will celebrate its 15th anniversary in Martian orbit on Christmas Day.
Named for the influential Soviet rocket engineer Sergey Korolev, the impact crater is 82 kilometers (50 miles) in diameter and contains a permanent ice field that stretches over a mile deep. Mars Express captured its view with its High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC), creating a composite image out of five orbital passes over the region.
Korolev crater was also recently imaged by the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which is jointly operated by ESA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos.
Topography of Korolev crater. Image: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin
The TGO’s Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) instrument captured a topographical view of the formation on April 4, which shows the slope of the crater in blues and purples.
The ice field is chilled by a “cold trap” of air that insulates the crater and keeps it perennially filled with frozen water. It would be a great place to go for a skate, so long as you don’t mind low gravity, unbreathable air, and high doses of radiation.
Cool crater portraits aren’t the only seasonal gifts we’re getting from our Martian robots this week. NASA also announced that its InSight lander, which touched down on Mars on November 26, successfully placed its seismometer on the surface with its robotic arm on Wednesday.
InSight’s seismometer on the Martian surface, December 19, 2018. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This marked the first time that a seismometer has been placed on an alien world. This instrument is designed to pick up “Marsquakes” caused by geological faults or asteroid impacts, like the one that formed Korolev crater.
“InSight’s timetable of activities on Mars has gone better than we hoped,” said InSight project manager Tom Hoffman in a statement. “Getting the seismometer safely on the ground is an awesome Christmas present.”