Mars Express Captures Spectacular Images of Massive 'Winter Wonderland' Crater on Red Planet

This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows Korolev crater, a 52-mile-wide feature found in the northern lowlands of Mars. iStock

The European Space Agency (ESA) has released spectacular images of an icy winter wonderland on the surface of the Red Planet, just in time for Christmas.

Featured in the shots are the 52 mile wide Korolev impact crater located in Mars's northern lowlands, whose floor lies about 1.2 miles beneath its rim, according to the ESA. The huge crater is filled with water ice, which at the center, is around 1.1 miles thick all year round.

Read more: NASA's InSight lander took its first selfie on Mars

As air moves over the crater, it cools down and sinks, creating a layer of cold air which lies directly above the ice shelf, acting as a shield against heat and ensuring that the ice doesn't melt. This phenomenon is referred to as "cold trap."

The images—which were taken earlier this year using the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on ESA's Mars Express orbiter—are a fitting way to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the spacecraft's insertion into the Red Planet's orbit, coming up on Christmas Day.

Mars Express launched on June 2, 2003 and arrived at Mars six months later. The 150 million euro mission is designed to collect data on Mars's subsurface, surface, atmosphere and environment using the orbiter's seven scientific instruments, including the HRSC, which is being used to image the entire planet in full color and 3D at a resolution of about 10 meters. The mission also involved a lander known as Beagle 2. However, this failed to properly deploy due to a technical failure.

The orbiter has had far more luck and is currently the second longest surviving spacecraft orbiting a planet other than Earth. The mission was named "Express" because the spacecraft was built relatively quickly.

The Korolev crater is named after Sergei Korolev, regarded by many as the "father" of astronautics—the practice of navigating beyond the Earth's atmosphere—and Soviet space technology.

Korolev was the lead rocket engineer and spacecraft designer on several pioneering Soviet space missions including Sputnik I (the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth,) the Vostok space program (which took the first human into space,) and the first mission to reach the lunar surface, known as Luna.

The Red Planet has been in the news recently after NASA's InSight robotic lander successfully touched down on November 26. Since then, the lander—which is designed to study the planet's deep interior—has snapped its first selfie and also recorded the eerie sound of Martian wind, in what was a scientific first.