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"Korolev crater" on Mars has a 50-mile-wide sheet of solid ice that is one-mile thick

Imagine a vast expanse of untouched snow — an idyllic scene for winter enthusiasts. Now, picture this wintry dream not on Earth, but on Mars. This is what the Korolev crater offers.

This immense Martian crater is a breathtaking feature on the Red Planet, captured in stunning detail by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express mission.

Launched on June 2, 2003, Mars Express embarked on a six-month voyage to Mars, culminating in a successful orbital entry on Christmas Day of the same year.

This December marks the 20-year anniversary of its orbit insertion and the commencement of its groundbreaking science program.

Spectacular view of Korolev crater

Celebrating this milestone, the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) provides us with a remarkable view of the Korolev crater.

This image is a composite of five different ‘strips’, each collected over separate orbits, seamlessly merged to present this stunning vista.

Additionally, the crater is showcased in perspective, context, and topographic views, offering a comprehensive understanding of its terrain.

Spanning 51 miles (82km) in diameter, Korolev crater lies in Mars’s northern lowlands, south of the dune-filled Olympia Undae that encircles part of the northern polar cap.

Unlike an ordinary crater, Korolev is unique. It’s not filled with snow but with a thick layer of ice, approximately 1.2 miles (1.8km) deep, that persists throughout the year.

Science behind the permanent ice

This perpetual ice cover is attributed to a fascinating phenomenon known as a ‘cold trap’. The crater’s depth, around two kilometers below its rim, plays a pivotal role.

The deepest parts, holding the ice, create a natural cold trap. The air cooled by the ice sinks, forming a protective layer of cold air directly above it.

This layer acts as a shield, maintaining the ice’s stability and preventing it from melting. Air’s poor heat conductivity enhances this effect, ensuring the crater remains permanently icy.

Tribute to a space pioneer

Korolev crater honors Sergei Korolev, the chief rocket engineer and spacecraft designer, often referred to as the father of Soviet space technology.

Korolev’s legacy includes the pioneering Sputnik program, the Vostok and Voskhod human space exploration programs, and the first interplanetary missions to the Moon, Mars, and Venus.

He was instrumental in the development of the Soyuz launcher, a key component of the Russian space program, utilized for both crewed and robotic flights.

Korolev crater offers a new perspective

Korolev crater has also piqued the interest of other missions, such as ESA’s ExoMars program, which seeks to determine if life ever existed on Mars.

The Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) on the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter captured a fascinating 25 mile (40km) segment of the crater’s northern rim.

This imagery, taken soon after its operational commencement in April 2018, highlighted the crater’s intriguing shape and structure, along with its bright icy deposits.

In summary, these images from Mars Express and ExoMars offer incredible scientific data while providing a new perspective on our neighboring planet, unveiling its beauty and continuing to feed our curiosity about the universe.

The Korolev crater, with its year-round ice, is a stark reminder of the dynamic and diverse environments that exist beyond our world. As we celebrate the 20-year journey of Mars Express, we look forward to many more discoveries and a deeper understanding of Mars.

More about Mars Express

As mentioned above, the Mars Express mission, an ambitious endeavor by the European Space Agency (ESA), stands as a landmark in space exploration.

Launched on June 2, 2003, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, this mission marks Europe’s first independent venture to another planet. The spacecraft, propelled by a Soyuz-Fregat rocket, embarked on a six-month journey to Mars, arriving in December 2003.

At the heart of the mission lies the Mars Express Orbiter, equipped with high-resolution cameras and scientific instruments designed to scrutinize the Martian surface and atmosphere.

These tools have captured unprecedented images and data, offering insights into the planet’s geology, mineral composition, and climate history.

Notably, the mission’s OMEGA instrument detected signs of water ice and carbon dioxide ice at the Martian poles, bolstering theories about Mars’ potential to host life in the past.

Beagle 2 lander

Accompanying the orbiter was the Beagle 2 lander, named after the HMS Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin on his historic voyage.

Unfortunately, after its deployment from the orbiter, Beagle 2 lost contact with Earth, leading to speculation about its fate.

In 2015, images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter revealed that Beagle 2 had successfully landed but failed to fully deploy its solar panels, impeding communication.

Despite this setback, the Mars Express Orbiter continues to exceed expectations. Its extended missions have allowed continuous observation of Mars, contributing to our understanding of the planet’s atmosphere, surface, and potential for habitability.

The mission has fostered international collaboration, with instruments provided by ESA member states and NASA.

In summary, the Mars Express mission, ongoing and dynamic, exemplifies human curiosity and technological prowess. As it continues to orbit Mars, it sends back a wealth of data, fueling scientific discovery and inspiring future missions to unravel the mysteries of the Red Planet.


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