Mars orbiter sends a picture-perfect postcard back to Earth

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Mars is looking like a cool destination this time of year, especially in this picture recently released by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter. The image shows the icy heart of the perennially chilly Korolev crater, and is one of a few snapshots sent back from Mars’ robot explorers to Earth this holiday season.

The Korolev crater formed sometime in Mars’ turbulent past, when another object slammed into the northern lowlands of the planet, leaving a scar fifty miles wide and more than a mile deep. Dust and water ice slowly accumulated, building up into a glacier that has nearly filled the hole left behind by that long-ago collision.

Another view of the Korolev crater
ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

The European Space Agency calls the crater a “cold trap,” where air moving over the frigid ice is cooled, creating a kind of chilly barrier between the ice within the crater and warmer parts of the atmosphere — even in the summer.

This isn’t the first time that Korolev crater has had a moment in the spotlight. NASA snapped it making waves in the Martian clouds in 2003, and in April of this year, one of the first images the ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter captured was a gorgeous shot of the crater’s rim.

The rim of the Korolev crater, as seen from the Trace Gas Orbiter in April 2018
ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS

The latest pictures of the Korolev crater are a composite of five different images taken by Mars Express, and were released to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the spacecraft’s arrival at Mars.

Since then, the orbiter has gotten more company, most recently, NASA’s InSight lander, which successfully touched down last month. This week, InSight also celebrated a milestone with a snapshot, taken after deploying a seismometer on Mars.

A seismometer from InSight being placed on Mard December 19th, 2018.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Okay, it’s not quite as wintery, or as glamorous as the Mars Express picture, but it’s still pretty neat. This is the first time that a seismometer — which measures tremors in the planet — has ever been deployed on Mars, and researchers can’t wait to get their hands on the data that this instrument will send back.