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Spacecraft spots mesmerizing swirls at one of the lowest points on Mars

The curving patterns -- found inside one of the largest impact craters in the solar system -- have a puzzling origin.

This cropped view shows some of the curving patterns inside the Hellas impact basin on Mars.

This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

Try to comprehend the scale of the Hellas impact basin on Mars. At 1,430 miles (2,300 kilometers) in diameter and 4.3 miles (7 kilometers) deep, it's a doozy of a crater, one of the largest we know of in the solar system. It's an epic region on Mars, but it gets even more interesting when you zoom in on the details of its landscape.

On Friday, the European Space Agency shared a view snapped by the CaSSIS camera on the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter back in May. It shows a wild wonderland of swirls and curves the space agency described as "mesmerizing."

ESA traces the history of Hellas back to between 3.8 and 4.1 billion years ago when an asteroid struck the planet. Visit ESA for the full, detailed image and spend some time getting lost in the dramatic whorls, like an elongated fingerprint etched across the Martian ground.

This wider view from the Trace Gas Orbiter shows the intricacies of the patterns in the Hellas impact basin.


The stretch of surface seen in the image is one of the lowest points on Mars. "The swirling nature of the landscape evokes a feeling of flow," ESA said in a statement. "The exact reason for its origin is a puzzle, however, and could be attributed to one of many different processes: salt tectonism, or viscous deformation of ice and sediments, for example."  

The Trace Gas Orbiter spacecraft has been studying the red planet and cataloging its atmospheric gases. It's one facet of the ExoMars program, which will also involve sending a rover to Mars in 2022. The rover, like the orbiter, is a joint project from ESA and Russian space agency Roscosmos.  

We've seen some other wild views from inside Hellas, including a look at "scratch marks," likely created by dry ice sliding down sandy dunes -- as seen by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The questions around the impact basin formations show we still have a lot to learn about the red planet. We might have rovers on the surface and spacecraft in orbit, but there are plenty of mysteries left to solve.