10 September 2013

The south pole of Mars shows that the Red Planet isn’t always dull, dusty, and barren

What you see here (in full gorgeous detail below) is an image of Mars’ south pole, captured by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express Orbiter. It is distinctly different from the dusty, barren, not-attractive landscapes that we usually associate with the Red Planet, but it’s still most definitely Mars.

The image is a combination of blue, green, and infrared images captured by the Orbiter’s High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC), assembled by Bill Dunford. The infrared channel slightly exaggerates the reds, but it’s pretty close to being “real.”

Mars southern polar ice cap, captured by ESA’s Mars Express Orbiter [Click to zoom in]

The huge white swirl in the middle is Mars’ permanent southern polar ice cap. It mostly consists of water ice, like the poles here on Earth. In the winter, as temperatures fall to around -153 Celsius (-243 F), carbon dioxide freezes, forming a few-meter-deep layer of dry ice. When the winter ends and sunlight strikes the dry ice, it sublimates into gas, creating massive winds that travel at 250 mph (400 kph). In the image below, captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) HiRISE camera, the black splotches are believed to be explosive pock marks left behind by sublimating CO2.

NASA’s MRO HiRISE captured these black splotches on Mars’ northern latitudes. They’re believed to be caused by CO2 explosively sublimating.

In the future, terraforming - the process of making a planet more conducive to human colonization - could melt the southern polar ice cap to create a vast amount of liquid water. Terraforming is a long, long way off, though - first we need to actually get some humans onto the surface of Mars. Having a source of fresh water on the surface of Mars is definitely one of the top reasons for settling on Mars instead of other planets, though.

Now read: The hunt for alien, star-encompassing Dyson Spheres begins


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