Cosmic Cappuccino: Delicious Swirls in Mars' South Pole

Mars’ South Polar Icecap
ESA’s Mars Express show the planet's Mars’ south polar ice cap, with swirls reminiscent of a cappuccino beverage. Image released Feb. 9, 2015. (Image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/Bill Dunford )

In this dreamy observation, staring down on Mars’ south polar icecap, a European spacecraft has captured stunning ruddy swirls frozen in Martian ice, like cinnamon sprinkles and coffee mixing with the frothy milk atop a rich cappuccino.

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Imaged by the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter in 2012, the scene was reprocessed by Bill Dunford and re-released by the ESA Monday (Feb. 9).

The south pole region of Mars plays host to an icecap that is shifted 150 kilometers (93 miles) off the planet's geographical pole. This mispositioned icecap, which is permanent year-round (but covered with a thinner layer of ice during the south pole winter), formed at this location because deep impact craters "funnel the strong winds that blow across Mars towards its southern pole, creating a mix of different low- and high-pressure systems," writes an ESA news release. "The carbon dioxide in the polar cap sublimates at different rates in these regions with contrasting pressure, resulting in the cap’s lopsided structure." [See more photos from Mars Express]

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Although the swirls of carbon dioxide and water ice and red regolith appear smooth and flowing from orbit, the icy landscape is in fact a layered mix of peaks, troughs and flat plains.

One can imagine, in the future when humanity sets foot onto the Martian surface, that the Mars icecaps will become a highly sought-after resource, not only as an invaluable water and fuel supply, but also as a climate time capsule. The planet's climate history is locked in those layers, providing information about the planet's climate and its habitable potential.

For more information about this classic Mars image, browse the ESA news release.

This article was provided by Discovery News.

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Media Relations Specialist, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Ian O'Neill is a media relations specialist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. Prior to joining JPL, he served as editor for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific‘s Mercury magazine and Mercury Online and contributed articles to a number of other publications, including,, Live Science,, Scientific American. Ian holds a Ph.D in solar physics and a master's degree in planetary and space physics.