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Mars' South Pole captured on camera: Stunning image reveals rarely seen ice cap of frozen water and carbon dioxide

  • Image was taken by European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft
  • Shows Mars' Ice cap, plus its highlands and part of the vast Hellas basin
  • Unusual shot was taken from the furthest point of the craft's orbit, allowing a sweeping shot that captured the red planet's wide range of features 

By Sarah Griffiths for MailOnline

Published: 07:48 EST, 14 October 2015 | Updated: 07:48 EST, 14 October 2015

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The European Space Agency has released a breathtaking image offering a rare view of Mars' South Pole.

It was taken by the Mars Express spacecraft far above the red planet while it was recalibrating its sensors.

The focus of the sweeping view is Mars' ice cap, composed mainly of frozen water and carbon dioxide but other, more subtle features, including cratered highlands, can also be identified.

A breath-taking image offers a rare glimpse of Mars’ South Pole (show) . It was taken by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express spacecraft and shows the shape of the cap during summer

A breath-taking image offers a rare glimpse of Mars' South Pole (show) . It was taken by the European Space Agency's (ESA) Mars Express spacecraft and shows the shape of the cap during summer

Mars Express usually records images by pointing its camera straight down towards Mars' surface, from an altitude of 186 miles (300km).

But this time, Esa's craft took the snap showing the red planet's ancient cratered highlands and ice cap, 6,151 miles (9,900km) from Mars, which is the furthest point along its orbit.

The image was taken as it turned at high altitude, enabling it to get a wider view and capture a range of features, as well as recalibrating its camera sensors, thanks to the light conditions.

Mars Express usually takes images by pointing its camera straight down toward Mars’ surface, from an altitude of 186 miles (300km). But this time, ESA’s craft took the snap showing the red planet’s ancient cratered highlands and ice cap, 6,151 miles (9,900km) from Mars, which is the furthest point along its orbit

Mars Express usually takes images by pointing its camera straight down toward Mars' surface, from an altitude of 186 miles (300km). But this time, ESA's craft took the snap showing the red planet's ancient cratered highlands and ice cap, 6,151 miles (9,900km) from Mars, which is the furthest point along its orbit

Mars Express (illustrated) consists of two parts, the Mars Express Orbiter and the Beagle 2 lander. Although the lander failed to fully deploy after it landed on the Martian surface, the orbiter has been successfully performing scientific measurements since early 2004, including taking high-resolution images

Mars Express (illustrated) consists of two parts, the Mars Express Orbiter and the Beagle 2 lander. Although the lander failed to fully deploy after it landed on the Martian surface, the orbiter has been successfully performing scientific measurements since early 2004, including taking high-resolution images

MARS' SOUTH ICE CAP 

The Red Planet's south ice cap, Planum Australe, is partially covered by a permanent polar ice cap composed of frozen water and carbon dioxide about 1.9 miles (3km) thick.

A seasonal ice cap forms on top of the permanent one during the Martian winter and the cap looks smaller in the summer.

Data from Mars Express indicates that there are three main parts to the ice cap.

The most reflective part of the ice cap is approximately 85 per cent dry ice and 15 per cent water ice.

The second part, where the ice cap forms steep slopes at the boundary with the surrounding plain, is almost exclusively water ice.

The third part of the ice cap is surrounded by permafrost fields that extend for miles north away from the slopes.

Scientists believe it's possible the area of the ice cap may be gradually shrinking due to localised climate change. 

It was taken using the craft's high-resolution stereo camera on February 25.

The spectacular shot shows the southern highlands, distinctive with its many craters, and part of the vast Hellas basin at the top of the image.

The basin measures 1,367 miles (2,200km) in diameter and five miles (8km) deep.

It's even possible to see two large channels, named Dao Vallis and Niger Vallis, which show up as dark wiggly lines, space.com reported. 

It's thought blurry patches at the top of the image were caused by clouds.

The most striking feature of the photo, however, is the planet's cap, named Planum Australe, which was discovered in 2004.

It changes in size and shape according to the season and is captured in the photo when diminutive in size during the south polar summer. 

Data from Mars Express has previously suggested that there are three main parts to the ice cap with the most reflective made from mostly dry ice.

The image was taken as the craft turned at high altitude, enabling it to get a wider view and capture a range of features (the ares covered is shown) as well as recalibrating its camera sensors

The image was taken as the craft turned at high altitude, enabling it to get a wider view and capture a range of features (the ares covered is shown) as well as recalibrating its camera sensors

MYSTERY OF MARTIAN PEBBLES IS SOLVED: SHAPE AND SMOOTHNESS PROVE THEY WERE CARRIED UP TO 30 MILES ALONG A RIVER BED

There is now even more evidence that Mars was once covered in oceans, lakes and rivers.

A group of small rounded pebbles found in the Gale Crater are shaped in such a way that suggests they once hopped, slid and rolled along a river bed on the red planet.

And by carrying out reconstructions on similar stones on Earth, the researchers believe that this river may have been up to 30 miles (50km) long.

The pebbles were initially found near Bradbury Rise, the landing site of Curiosity rover in the Gale Crater in 2013. 

A group of small rounded pebbles found in the Gale Crater (bottom) are shaped in such a way that suggests they once rolled along a river bed on the red planet. By carrying out reconstructions on similar stones in a lab (top) and in New Mexico (centre) the researchers now believe this river was up to 30 miles (50km) long

A group of small rounded pebbles found in the Gale Crater (bottom) are shaped in such a way that suggests they once rolled along a river bed on the red planet. By carrying out reconstructions on similar stones in a lab (top) and in New Mexico (centre) the researchers now believe this river was up to 30 miles (50km) long

This crater is estimated to have formed 3.6 billion years ago and is being explored by the robotic rover.

When the rocks were discovered, experts believed their unique shape must have been caused by flowing water in the same way similar rocks and stones are worn down on Earth's coastlines and waterways. 

In particular, the smooth surfaces are caused as the rocks hit against the river or sea bed as they are dragged along. 

However, the distance these pebbles had travelled was key to establishing this.

The pebbles were initially found near Bradbury Rise, the landing site of Curiosity rover in the Gale Crater (pictured) in 2013. This crater is estimated to have formed 3.6 billion years ago

The pebbles were initially found near Bradbury Rise, the landing site of Curiosity rover in the Gale Crater (pictured) in 2013. This crater is estimated to have formed 3.6 billion years ago

If the pebbles had only moved around 1.5 miles (2.5km), they could have been moved by wind and eroded as they travelled. 

But if they had travelled over a much longer distance, then they were more than likely carried by water. 

To put this to the test, researchers led by Douglas Jerolmack, a geologist from the University of Pennsylvania, tracked the form and mass of stones at various points along Rio Mameyes -  a steep mountain stream in northeastern Puerto Rico. 

From this they could track how the shape of the rocks evolved from jagged fragments to smoother stones.

They also studied stones at the Dog Canyon alluvial fan in New Mexico. 

An alluvial fan, or cone, is caused as sediment is built up by streams, and similar structures have been spotted in the Gale Crater on Mars. 

By comparing their results from the Rio Mameyes with those taken from Dog Canyon, they applied the same principles to images of the pebbles taken by Curiosity.

When they were found, experts believed the shape of the stones (pictured) must have been caused by flowing water. However, the distance these pebbles had travelled was key. If the pebbles had only moved  1.5 miles, they could have been moved by wind

When they were found, experts believed the shape of the stones (pictured) must have been caused by flowing water. However, the distance these pebbles had travelled was key. If the pebbles had only moved 1.5 miles, they could have been moved by wind

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