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NASA spacecraft spots striking shift in Mars ice cap

A lot can change in 10 years on the Red Planet.

The MRO image on the left is from 2009 and the one on the right shows the same area in 2019.

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Cue The Byrds singing Turn! Turn! Turn! That's the perfect soundtrack to go with a set of images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showing some notable changes in a southern polar landscape on the planet.

The area MRO is studying is capped with carbon dioxide ice. Images taken in 2009 and 2019 show a very different look. 

The earlier view is bright and blue with what appears to be plenty of frost cover. The 2019 image of the same spot shows the frost abating as a set of darker pits have grown and merged into each other, resembling a weird patch of amoebas.

The MRO HiRise camera team at the University of Arizona released a video Tuesday exploring the transformation. 

Mars experiences seasonal changes. MRO captured both images during the planet's late southern summer, though the 2019 image was about two weeks later into the season. 

The dramatic differences could be due in part to the timing of the viewing, but the planet's massive 2018 dust storm may have played a role. "Extra deposits of dust would have warmed the surface and promoted even more disappearance of the frost," the HiRise team says. That epic dust storm was responsible for ending NASA's Opportunity rover mission.

MRO has been in orbit around Mars since 2006, giving us a good history of terrain views of Mars to explore. This latest look at the frosty ice cap is a reminder of just how dynamic the Red Planet can be.