A massive, icy Mars crater stares up at a Red Planet orbiter (image)

A high aerial view above a rocky, desolate landscape, with a deep, enormous crater scooped out from nearly half the image on the right. There is also a much smaller crater on the left.
A panoramic view of Mars’ Utopia Planitia region with a massive impact crater as seen by the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). (Image credit: ESA/TGO/CaSSIS)

A massive Mars impact crater dominates a new view from the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). 

The result of an ancient asteroid impact, the crater is located in Mars' Utopia Planitia. That's the largest known impact basin in the entire solar system, with a diameter of roughly 2,050 miles (3,300 kilometers), or  twice the size of Earth's Sahara Desert from north to south. Interesting ice-related features on and below the surface of the crater lend insight on the Red Planet’s watery past, according to a statement from the European Space Agency (ESA). 

"This remnant of an ancient impact is just one of the many scars asteroids have inflicted upon the Red Planet," ESA officials said in the statement. "Water, volcanoes and impacts from asteroids shaped the martian surface in the ancient past. Mars is currently a cold, dry desert." 

Related: Mars' water may have come from ancient asteroid impacts

The recent image was taken by ExoMars’ CaSSIS (Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System) instrument from a distance of only 248 miles (400 km) above the crater. From this vantage point, the crater nearly fills the camera’s entire field of view. ESA shared a new panoramic image centered on the crater on May 15.

The Utopia Planitia region is known to exhibit icy features, including frost on its surface during the Martian winter. The crater, stretching roughly 5 miles (8 km) across, also shows signs of material ejected in a way that suggests there was water ice present when the asteroid hit the region in the distant past. Immense heat generated by the impact would have melted the water ice and forced the resulting mixture of liquid water and dust upward. 

A panoramic view of Mars’ Utopia Planitia region with a massive impact crater as seen by the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO).  (Image credit: ESA/TGO/CaSSIS)

"The smooth look of the crater is consistent with other features in the region having evidence of a water-ice history," ESA officials said. "Zooming into the crater it is possible to see streaks on the walls of the crater, showing evidence of landslides, and ripples sculpted by the wind." 

In addition to snapping stunning photos such as this, the orbiter is tasked with studying the planet’s atmospheric gasses and mapping Mars’ surface for water-rich locations. In turn, this data can be used to better understand the history of water on Mars and the possible existence of ancient life. 

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Samantha Mathewson
Contributing Writer

Samantha Mathewson joined Space.com as an intern in the summer of 2016. She received a B.A. in Journalism and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut. Previously, her work has been published in Nature World News. When not writing or reading about science, Samantha enjoys traveling to new places and taking photos! You can follow her on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13.