‘Angelic Figure’ Spotted by Mars Spacecraft Near South Pole

by Jennifer Shea

A European Space Agency spacecraft has photographed silhouettes from Mars that look like an angel and a large heart. And it’s just in time for the Season of Giving.

Mars Express Finds Angel and Heart Shapes

The image in question is from the Mars Express High-Resolution Stereo Camera, the agency said on its website. The shapes stand out against the beige surface of Mars because they are dune fields, comprised of dark, rock-forming minerals like pyroxene and olivine, which also exist on Earth.

The photograph was taken around the south polar region of Mars. The south pole of the planet is covered in a cap made up of about 12% water ice and 88% solid carbon dioxide, also known as dry ice. The dry ice converts from a solid to a gas during Mars’ southern hemisphere’s summertime, which is happening now.

European scientists believe the shape that resembles an angel’s hand is actually a sublimation pit. That’s a geological feature created when ice turns to gas, leaving holes in the planet’s surface. Sublimation pits usually form as the seasons change.

They think the angel’s head and halo are the result of an impact crater. At some point, an object from outer space collided with the crust of Mars. It disturbed the planet’s surface and in the process laid open the layered deposits beneath the surface of the southern polar region. 

The heart shape is probably the result of a string of cliffs or steep slopes that erosion left behind. Scientists believe that terrain once existed deeper beneath the planet’s surface in layers created by ancient volcanic activity.

The South Pole of Mars

All told, the south pole of the planet plays host to some interesting topography.

“The south pole of Mars is a fascinating region – and a watery one,” the ESA said. “Although the Red Planet appears dry and lifeless today, it was once far warmer and wetter, much like the early Earth. While the surface may no longer be hospitable to water, its subsurface may remain a friendly environment for ancient lake systems that, excitingly, may hold evidence of life on Mars.”

In fact, earlier this year, the ESA’s Mars Express discovered three new ponds made of liquid saltwater there. That’s on top of the big underground reservoir it found in 2018.  

The Mars Express is not taking Christmas off, but will continue to examine Mars in depth, as it has since it entered orbit there in December of 2003.