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Orbiter captures sweeping view of Mars' south pole

Mars south pole ESA/DLR/FU BERLIN, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

The European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft has sent back a unique glimpse of the Red Planet: a sweeping view of Mars' south polar ice cap surrounded by deeply cratered highlands. The image was captured by a high-resolution stereo camera on February 25, according to the ESA's website.

The shot centers on a rare look at the planet's south polar ice cap, which is made up of carbon dioxide ice and frozen water. The ice cap changes size and shape seasonally. The ESA image was taken during the summer, showing a smaller, relatively circular cap. During the winter, the ice would spread out over the surrounding land area.

Beyond the ice cap, the image features highlands spotted with impact craters of various states of erosion and size. Sweeping across the Mars vista are dune deposits, filling in many of the deep craters pocketing the planet.

Typically, Mars Express would capture an image from the closest possible point to the planet, shooting from an altitude of a little over 186 miles. In this instance, the spacecraft took a "broom calibration" image, which means its camera scanned the Mars's surface from about 6,152 feet, near the furthest point along its orbit around the planet. This vantage allows the spacecraft's camera to capture a numerous features of the planet's surface at the same illumination conditions, calibrating the camera's sensors.

The Mars Express mission was launched June 2, 2003. Since then, the Mars Express has offered many previously unseen looks at the planet. For instance, in July, it released a color-coded topographic map of the Tharsis volcanic province, one of the more geologically diverse areas of the planet.

Back in 2004, the orbiter confirmed the presence of frozen water on the planet's surface for the first time, detecting water on the Martian south pole.

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