This Icy Crater Near Mars' North Pole Is a Winter Wonderland (Photos)

Korolev crater on Mars
This image from the European Space Agency's Mars Express satellite shows Korolev crater, located near Mars' northern pole. The crater's coordinates are 165 degrees E, 73 degrees N on the martian surface. (Image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Images of an "ever-icy" Martian crater reveal a distant yet mesmerizing winter wonderland. 

What appears to be a bowl of fresh snow in this imagery released by the European Space Agency (ESA) on Thursday (Dec. 20) is actually an ice deposit chilling the air moving over it, agency officials said in a statement

Ice is found in the deepest parts of this formation, called Korolev Crater, and as air moves over the ice, it cools down and sinks, producing cold air right above the chilly deposit. 

ESA officials called this phenomenon a "cold trap" because the air acts as a shield to keep the crater "permanently icy."

Korolev Crater is 82 kilometers across (51 miles) and found just south of terrain that wraps around Olympia Undae, Mars' northern polar cap. The crater floor can reach depths of two kilometers (1.2 miles) below its rim, deeper than Earth's Grand Canyon.

This image from ESA's Mars Express shows Korolev crater, and is composed of five observations, each one from a different orbit of the spacecraft. It's High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) instrument took the data that formed the image. (Image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

The High Resolution Stereo Camera on the space agency's Mars Express satellite captured five different "strips" of the crater, each one coming from a different orbit of the spacecraft. By combining them, a single image was produced.

Mars Express has a connection with Christmas — the mission first fired its main engine to enter into Martian orbit on Dec. 25, 2003, after a roughly six-month journey from Earth. Mars Express is the agency's first spacecraft to explore another planet, but its high-resolution stereoscopic camera and mineralogical mapping spectrometer originated with an earlier mission called Mars 96, which failed shortly after launch on Nov. 16, 1996.

This image shows the landscape in and around Korolev crater, a feature 82 kilometers across (51 miles) found on Mars' northern lowlands. The bold white box indicates the region that the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera imaged over orbits 18042, 5726, 5692, 5654, and 1412. The elevation of the terrain is denoted by the blue colors indicated by the bar at the bottom. (Image credit: NASA MGS MOLA Science Team)

Follow Doris Elin Salazar on Twitter@salazar_elin. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Doris Elin Urrutia
Contributing Writer

Doris is a science journalist and contributor. She received a B.A. in Sociology and Communications at Fordham University in New York City. Her first work was published in collaboration with London Mining Network, where her love of science writing was born. Her passion for astronomy started as a kid when she helped her sister build a model solar system in the Bronx. She got her first shot at astronomy writing as a editorial intern and continues to write about all things cosmic for the website. Doris has also written about microscopic plant life for Scientific American’s website and about whale calls for their print magazine. She has also written about ancient humans for Inverse, with stories ranging from how to recreate Pompeii’s cuisine to how to map the Polynesian expansion through genomics. She currently shares her home with two rabbits. Follow her on twitter at @salazar_elin.