ESA Mars Express orbiter takes photo of Christmas ‘angel’ on planet

Christmas might not be an earthbound holiday, according to a startling image from the surface of Mars taken by a European Space Agency satellite.

The ESA’s Mars Express captured what looks like an angel, complete with halo and wings, near the Red Planet’s southern pole.

The satellite’s high-resolution stereo camera also snapped what looks like a stylized heart by the angel’s side.

The ethereal images are merely coincidental, the agency insists, caused by geological features unique to the polar region.

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The ESA's Mars Express captured what looks like an angel, complete with halo and wings, near the Red Planet's southern pole.  The ethereal shape is visible, the agency says, because of the pattern and composition of nearby dune fields, which are rich in dark, rocky minerals

The ESA’s Mars Express captured what looks like an angel, complete with halo and wings, near the Red Planet’s southern pole.  The ethereal shape is visible, the agency says, because of the pattern and composition of nearby dune fields, which are rich in dark, rocky minerals

‘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 center,’ the agency said.

‘These shapes appear to jump out of the light tan — or, in the spirit of the season, eggnog-colored! — surface of Mars,’

Mars’ south pole, directly out of the frame, is typically covered by an ice cap a mile thick.

Since it’s summer in the planet’s lower hemisphere, though, the frigid sheet is at its lowest level of the year.

A stylized heart appears next to the angel on Mars' south pole. According to the European Space agency, the valentine is the result of an escarpment — a line of cliffs or steep slopes created by erosion — that's separated from the dunes below.

A stylized heart appears next to the angel on Mars’ south pole. According to the European Space agency, the valentine is the result of an escarpment — a line of cliffs or steep slopes created by erosion — that’s separated from the dunes below.

The Christmas 'angel' was spotted near the south pole of Mars, between Ultimata Lingula, where the polar cap meets the surrounding plains, and and Ultima Chasma

The Christmas ‘angel’ was spotted near the south pole of Mars, between Ultimata Lingula, where the polar cap meets the surrounding plains, and and Ultima Chasma

The angelic shape is visible because of the pattern and composition of nearby dune fields, which are rich in dark, rocky minerals like pyroxene and olivine. 

Scientists aren’t sure why the dunes are scattered all across Mars—the current theory is the minerals were originally much deeper under the surface and were expelled by ancient volcanic activity.

Ongoing erosion and impacts have only brought the cocoa-colored minerals even further to the surface and distributed them across the planet.

A topographic view of the angel and heart.  Seeing angels, human faces and other familiar images on inanimate objects is called pareidolia and it's common when it comes to the Red Planet

A topographic view of the angel and heart.  Seeing angels, human faces and other familiar images on inanimate objects is called pareidolia and it’s common when it comes to the Red Planet

The High Resolution Stereo Camera aboard the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter has captured more than angelic shapes. In 2019, it photographed the first geological evidence of interconnected water reservoirs deep beneath the surface of the planet.

The High Resolution Stereo Camera aboard the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter has captured more than angelic shapes. In 2019, it photographed the first geological evidence of interconnected water reservoirs deep beneath the surface of the planet. 

Seeing angels, human faces and other familiar scenes on inanimate objects is called pareidolia and it’s hardly uncommon when it comes to Mars. 

In the 1970s, conspiracy theorists were certain a ‘face’ was spotted by one of the Viking orbiters, but it was again shown to be a chance alignment of mineral dunes.

More recently, natural features that look like domes and other manmade structures have  been photographed.

The European Space Agency says the valentine heart is actually the result of an escarpment — a line of cliffs or steep slopes created by erosion — that is separated from the dunes beneath.

WHY WE SEE STRANGE THINGS ON MARS

Pareidolia is the psychological response to seeing faces and other significant and everyday items in random stimulus.

It is a form of apophenia, when people see patterns in random, unconnected data.

There have been multiple occasions when people have claimed to see religious images and themes in unexpected places.

On the red planet, one of the most famous is the ‘face on Mars’ spotted by one of the Viking orbiters in 1976.

This was later proven to just be a chance alignment of sand dunes.

The angel’s hand, which looks like it is reaching to the left, is a large sublimation pit, a seasonal feature that forms as ice turns to gas and leaves empty pockets and depressions in the planetary surface.

Less than 15 percent of the ice cap is water ice, the rest is dry ice, solid carbon dioxide, which sublimates in the warm season and turns from a solid to a gas.

Sublimation pits have been seen on Pluto.

The angel’s head and halo are formed by an impact crater, the agency said, created when a meteorite collided with Mars’ crust.

‘As this impactor hit, it dug down into the surface, revealing the numerous layered deposits that make up the southern polar region,’ according to the ESA. ‘These subsurface layers can be glimpsed in other areas where the surface has been disturbed – areas that are clearly identifiable in the associated topographic view due to their notably low elevation – and hint at the long, complex, interesting history of this part of Mars.’

In September 2020, Mars Express found signs of new ponds of salty liquid water buried beneath the ice at the south pole.

Mars Express entered orbit around the planet in December 2003.

In March 2019, ESA scientists reported the orbiter had detected the first geological evidence of interconnected water reservoirs deep beneath the surface.

Previous research theorized about a groundwater system, but this analysis illustrated how extensive it was based on features that experts say could only have been carved by water.  

Geologists at Utrecht University in the Netherland found features that indicate the presence of water at depths of 13,000-16,000 feet.

They including channels etched into crater walls, valleys carved out by groundwater, fan shaped sediment deposits and ridged terraces in crater walls that would have been made by standing water.

Clays, carbonates, and silicates— minerals linked to the emergence of life on Earth—were also observed, 

‘Early Mars was a watery world, but as the planet’s climate changed this water retreated below the surface to form pools and ‘groundwater,’ said lead author Francesco Salese.

In September, Mars Express found evidence of several ponds of salty liquid water beneath the ice at the south pole.  

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