A massive ice-filled hole on the surface of Mars has been revealed in images beamed back from a spacecraft orbiting the red planet.
The Korolev crater measures 51 miles across and is located in the northern lowlands of Mars, just south of the pole.
At a depth of 1.2 miles, scientists think the chasm traps a layer of cold air that ensures its icy core remains in place all year round.
As air moves over the surface of the crater it sinks and creates a low temperature zone that preserves the ice by shielding it from the surrounding atmosphere.
The presence of liquid water on Mars has been the subject of much debate for years, and its discovery could hold the key to finding alien life there.
However, scientists have long known that much of the red planet’s polar regions are adorned with a layer of ice.
Scientists noted the Korolev site was a particularly well-preserved example of a frozen Martian crater.
It was named after the renowned engineer Sergei Korolev, known as the father of Soviet space technology, who worked on the Sputnik programme.
Images of the crater were sent back by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express mission, which was launched in 2003 and now sits in orbit around the planet.
The complete picture of the enormous crater was assembled using five different picture strips that were combined to make a single image.
Describing the resulting scene as a “beautiful winter wonderland”, the ESA said it was an “excellent celebration” of the spacecraft’s 15-year anniversary in space.
The region around the planet’s northern polar cap, known as Olympia Undae, is a particular zone of interest for other missions, including ESA’s ExoMars programme, which aims to establish if life ever existed on Mars.
Due to land in 2021, the ExoMars rover will drill into the surface of the planet to search for evidence of ancient life-forms buried underneath.
In November after much discussion within the European-Russian project, the team settled on a landing site called Oxia Planum, which scientists suspect was the home to a large body of water billions of years ago.
The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which is currently in orbit around Mars having arrived there in April, has also sent back images of the Koralev crater.
One of the first pictures the craft sent back from its mission was a view from directly above the crater, providing a detailed view of its shape, structure and icy deposits.
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