Swirling Spirals at the North Pole of Mars

Perspective view of the Mars north polar ice cap and its distinctive dark troughs forming a spiral-like pattern. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin; NASA MGS MOLA Science Team

A new mosaic from ESA’s Mars Express shows off the Red Planet’s north polar ice cap and its distinctive dark spiralling troughs.

The mosaic was generated from 32 individual orbit ‘strips’ captured between 2004 and 2010, and covers an area of around a million square kilometres.

The ice cap is a permanent fixture, but in the winter season – as it is now in early 2017 – temperatures are cold enough for around 30 percent of the carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere to precipitate onto the cap, adding a seasonal layer up to a metre thick.

During the warmer summer months most of the carbon dioxide ice turns directly into gas and escapes into the atmosphere, leaving behind the water-ice layers.

This colour moasic was generated from 32 individual orbit ‘strips’ captured between 2004 and 2010 by the High Resolution Stereo Camera onboard ESA’s Mars Express. The position of the north pole is marked. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

Strong winds are thought to have played an important role in shaping the ice cap over time, blowing from the elevated centre towards its lower edges and twisted by the same Coriolis force that causes hurricanes to spiral on Earth.

One particularly prominent feature is a 500 km-long, 2 km-deep trench that almost cuts the cap in two.

The plunging canyon, known as Chasma Boreale, is thought to be a relatively old feature, forming before the ice–dust spiral features, and seemingly growing deeper as new ice deposits built up around it.

Subsurface investigations by radar instruments onboard Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter revealed that the ice cap is made up of many individual layers of ice and dust extending to a depth of around 2 km.

This presents a valuable record for the nature of how the planet’s climate has changed as its tilt and orbit varied over hundreds of thousands of years.

This perspective view of the Mars north polar cap focuses on the ~500 km long, 100 km wide, and 2 km-deep canyon known as Chasma Boreale. The giant trough, which gives the appearance of almost cutting the ice cap in two, is thought to have been present before the iconic spiraling ice cap formed, seemingly growing deeper as new ice deposits built up around it. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin; NASA MGS MOLA Science Team

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