During a planned calibration maneuver, ESA's Mars Express spacecraft has captured a stunning shot of a huge swathe of the Martian environment. The image, snapped on February 25, captures a number of impressive features present on the surface of the Red Planet, including the Martian south pole, an enormous basin and two vast channels.
The Mars Express probe arrived in December 2003, having launched atop a Soyuz/Fregat rocket in June of the same year, and has since made numerous discoveries that have greatly improved our understanding of the Red Planet. This latest image was captured by the spacecraft's high-resolution stereo camera at a distance of 9,900 km (6,152 miles).
The Red Planet's icy polar region can be seen in the lower section of the image, shining in stark contrast to the surrounding landscape. Mars' polar region is subject to summers and winters much like Earth's own poles. At the time of the image, the Martian south pole was experiencing a summer period but during the winter the ice mass would reach far into the surrounding smoother terrain.
The central region, known as the southern highlands, is heavily pockmarked by ancient impact sites, while a large section in the upper left of the image is taken up by the Hellas Basin. It extends approximately 8 km (5 miles) below the Martian surface, and stretches across it for an impressive 2,200 km (1,367 miles).
Also present (though hard to distinguish) in the image are the Dao Vallis and Niger Vallis, two Martian valleys believed to have been carved out by flowing water in Mars' ancient past. Missions such as ESA's Mars Express, and NASA's MAVEN spacecraft are attempting to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet's enigmatic nature, ahead of a manned mission slated for the mid-2030s.