New images of Mars show an enormous crater that measures nearly 51 miles across and is filled with ice year-round, the European Space Agency reported.
Known as the Korolev Crater, located near the Martian north pole, it’s topped by “what appears to be a large patch of fresh, untrodden snow – a dream for any lover of the holiday season,” said a statement by ESA, which released the images Thursday.
But the space agency noted that the red planet is “a little too distant for a last-minute winter getaway.” (Mars is about 140 million miles from Earth, according to NASA. The distance can vary considerably, because each planet moves in its own orbit around the sun.)
The Martian crater was named after Sergei Korolev, the chief architect of the Soviet space program. Korolev, who died in 1966, worked on missions to the moon and Mars, and the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite.
The floor of the icy crater is more than a mile below its rim, which helps create a phenomenon called a cold trap, keeping the ice stable and permanently frozen, ESA said.
Christmas Day will mark 15 years since the Mars Express spacecraft began orbiting the planet. Also on Dec. 25, 2003, the Beagle 2 lander was released from the spacecraft and touched down safely on the planet’s surface, but failed to fully operate.
The photo’s oblique view of the crater is a composite created from image strips gathered by the Mars Express spacecraft’s High Resolution Stereo Camera during orbits around the planet last April, ESA said.
“At present, there is no liquid water on Mars, but there is a considerable quantity of ice,” according to DLR, Germany’s space agency. “The planet’s two polar caps consist of a mixture of carbon dioxide and water ice, which vary greatly in proportion to one another depending on the season.”
Last summer Italian scientists, upon analyzing data from the Mars Express spacecraft, said they found strong evidence of a lake of briny liquid below the surface of Mars, NPR’s Joe Palca reported.
The discovery sparked excitement about the possibility that life once existed on the planet, as scientists say liquid water is a necessary ingredient.
The Mars Express mission was recently joined by one from NASA called InSight, a robotic lander that seeks to discover how Mars was formed by mapping the planet’s core, crust and mantle. The InSight probe landed successfully on Mars on Nov. 26, NPR reported.