ESA snapshot of Mars reveals ‘angelic figure’ with ‘halo’ on the Red Planet’s surface

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Scientists operating the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) spacecraft encountered the angelic anomaly while exploring the Red Planet’s south pole. At first glance, the figure might be mistaken for a snow angel photographed here on Earth. But the deep red sands and eggnog-coloured dunes surrounding the figure are a dead giveaway of its true location.

ESA’s scientists spotted the figure using the Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera.

The powerful imaging tool is mounted aboard the Mars Express spacecraft, which has been orbiting Mars since 2003.

The spacecraft is the second-longest surviving instrument orbiting another world after NASA’s 2001 Mars Oddysey orbiter.

And after nearly 17 years of service, the spacecraft continues to surprise scientists with its discoveries.

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ESA said of the new snapshot: “The defined wings of an angelic figure, complete with halo, can be seen sweeping up and off the top of the frame in this image from Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera, while a large heart sits just right of centre.

“These shapes appear to jump out of the light tan — or, in the spirit of the season, eggnog-coloured! — surface of Mars; their dark colour is a result of the composition of the constituent dune fields, which largely comprise sands rich in dark, rock-forming minerals that are also found on Earth (namely pyroxene and olivine).”

The feature was found in the south polar region, with the pole itself just out of frame on the right-hand side.

Scientists would typically expect the martian south pole to be blanketed by ice.

On average, this ice cap is about one mile thick (1.5km) and measures some 248 miles (400km) across.

Roughly 12 percent of the ice is made out of water and the rest is dry ice or solid carbon dioxide (CO2).

In the winter, these gasses freeze in the atmosphere and cover the south pole.

But it is summer on Mars right now and the ice has sublimated or turned directly from a solid into a gas.

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This process is likely responsible for some of the angel’s features, including its “hand” on the left.

ESA said: “The ‘angel’ and ‘heart’ are both composed of various interesting features.

“Firstly, the angel’s hand, seen as if reaching to the left, is thought to be a large sublimation pit, a type of feature that forms as ice turns to gas and leaves empty pockets and depressions in the planetary surface (a process that often occurs as the seasons change).

“Sublimation pits have been seen on other planets in the Solar System, such as Pluto, and can also be seen scattered across the terrain to the right.”

The angel’s “halo” meanwhile, was most likely created when an object smashed into the red planet.

As the impactor ploughed into Mars, it exposed the various layers of deposits that make up Mars’s soil.

You can see the same layers in other parts of the feature that have been disturbed.

The scene also shows evidence of dust devils racing across the Martian surface.

Dust devils are strong but short-lived whirlwinds that can be as short as 32ft (10m) or as tall as 3,280ft (1,000m).

ESA said: “As many gear up for a safe and restful Christmas period, Mars Express will not rest on its laurels; the spacecraft will continue to observe and image our planetary neighbour in detail, as it has done since it entered orbit around Mars in December 2003.”

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