April 19, 2024

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What an extraterrestrial view.

The long-lived Mars Express Orbiter — a European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft that has flown around Mars for over two decades and recently eclipsed 25,000 orbits — captured a highly detailed image of the Red Planet. And among the giant Martian volcanoes is a surprise.

“The stunning view shows volcanoes, valleys, craters, clouds, and even a flying visit from Mars’s largest moon, Phobos,” the ESA wrote.

Here’s what you’re seeing in the outer-space vista below:

– Olympus Mons: The largest bulge near the top left is Olympus Mons, the biggest volcano in our solar system. It’s about the same size as Arizona, and reaches a whopping 16 miles (25 kilometers) high. (Mount Everest is 5.5 miles high.)

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– Volcanic trio: Below Olympus Mons is a line of three similarly colossal volcanoes: Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Arsia Mons. They are shield volcanoes, which tend not to be explosive. Instead, lava oozes out of vents, gradually layering over eons and creating a gentle slope. Ultimately, they produce a landform similar to a shield laid on its back.

– Countless craters: Mars is absolutely blanketed in craters. Just scan the surface. The Red Planet is close to our solar system’s asteroid belt, a region teeming with millions of asteroids. When they do collide with Mars, the Martian atmosphere is just 1 percent the density of Earth’s, meaning these space rocks are less likely to heat up and disintegrate. What’s more, Mars isn’t quite geologically dead — marsquakes frequently occur there — but there’s not enough geologic activity and volcanism to wash away, or cover up, new craters (like on Earth).

– Martian clouds: At both poles, atop and below the image, you can spy large regions of cloud cover. On Mars, clouds are made of water ice and carbon-dioxide ice.

– The moon Phobos: You can see Mars’ dark, misshapen moon Phobos on bottom left orbiting above the Red Planet. It’s relatively small and not too massive, with its longest side measuring just 17 miles (27 kilometers) long. “Phobos is too light for gravity to make it spherical,” the European Space Agency explains. What’s more, it’s been hit time and time again by potent space rocks. “Phobos was nearly shattered by a giant impact, and has gouges from thousands of meteorite impacts,” NASA noted.

The Mars Express view of Mars, with colossal volcanoes, clouds, craters, and a photobomb from a moon.

The Mars Express view of Mars, with colossal volcanoes, clouds, craters, and a photobomb from a moon.
Credit: ESA / DLR / FU Berlin

A close-up view of Phobos as it orbits Mars.

A close-up view of Phobos as it orbits Mars.
Credit: ESA / DLR / FU Berlin

Today, this great Martian desert is irradiated and profoundly dry — Mars has largely lost its atmosphere, leaving it an intensely dry, desert world. Mars is 1,000 times drier than the driest desert on Earth.

Yet Mars was once a wet planet, with gushing floods and expansive lakes. The now-desert planet could have once hosted primitive life. NASA‘s car-sized rovers are sleuthing for hints of past organisms — though there’s still no evidence life ever evolved on the Martian surface.



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