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Mars’ ‘Happy Face’ crater has grown in ten years as a result of thermal erosion

Mars has something to laugh about! The infamous ‘Happy Face’ crater near the South Pole of the Red Planet has grown noticeably in the last decade.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter first recorded the grinning face in 2011, using its powerful High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera.

Researchers compared an image of the crater from October 2011 to an image from December 13, 2020 and report that the ‘mouth’ has expanded.

The growing smile is actually caused by thermal erosion, as carbon dioxide evaporates and exposes more soil.

The ‘nose’ on the face has also grown, from two small dots to one large hollow.

The MRO began analyzing Mars shortly after its arrival in 2006.

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Comparing 2011 and 2020 images of the 'happy face' crater on Mars' South Pole, researcher says a decade of erosion has enlarged the 'mouth' and turned the noses of two small depressions into one combined hole

Comparing 2011 and 2020 images of the ‘happy face’ crater on Mars’ South Pole, researcher says a decade of erosion has enlarged the ‘mouth’ and turned the noses of two small depressions into one combined hole

“You can see how nine years of this thermal erosion has made the ‘mouth’ of the face bigger,” said Ross Beyer, a planetary scientist at the SETI Institute’s Sagan Center.

The ‘face’ also got a bit of a nose job: at first it consisted of two circular depressions.

But by 2020, “those two depressions have gotten bigger and merged,” Beyer noted.

However, studying the face is more than just a distraction.

The Happy Face crater broke through HiRISE on December 13, 2020. By monitoring these types of features, “we can understand longer-term climate trends on the Red Planet,” says researcher Ross Beyer.

“By measuring these changes throughout the Martian year, scientists can better understand the annual deposition and removal of polar frost,” Beyer said.

And by monitoring these sites for long periods of time, we can understand longer-term climate trends on the red planet.

The smile on the figure seems bigger because a lot of ice has been lost due to thermal erosion, revealing more of the surface.

Although it evaporates elsewhere on the planet, carbon dioxide ice forms near the poles – and shifts throughout the year as the climate changes – causing certain ‘features’ to appear.

The facial features we see actually represent different heights and different ice densities on the surface.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrived on the Red Planet in 2006 and captured the 'happy face' in 2011, using its powerful High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrived on the Red Planet in 2006 and captured the 'happy face' in 2011, using its powerful High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrived on the Red Planet in 2006 and captured the ‘happy face’ in 2011, using its powerful High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera

“The blobby features in the polar cap are due to the sun sublimating the carbon dioxide into these circular patterns,” Beyer explained.

That means that the CO2 goes directly from solid to gas without turning into a liquid, causing more erosion in the soil.

Seeing human faces and other familiar images in landscapes and on inanimate objects is called pareidolia and is not uncommon when it comes to Mars.

In late December, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express satellite took a photo of what appears to be an angel, complete with halo and wings, near the South Pole of the Red Planet.

The Christmas angel was spotted between Ultimata Lingula, where the polar cap meets the surrounding plains, and Ultima Chasma.

The European Space Agency captured what looked like an 'angel' on Mars last Christmas, caused by dune fields exposed to thawed ice sheets. Other images that have been spotted on the planet include a gorilla, the Bat Signal, and even Ed Asner

The European Space Agency captured what looked like an 'angel' on Mars last Christmas, caused by dune fields exposed to thawed ice sheets. Other images spotted on the planet include a gorilla, the Bat Signal, and even Ed Asner

The European Space Agency captured what looked like an ‘angel’ on Mars last Christmas, caused by dune fields exposed to thawed ice sheets. Other images spotted on the planet include a gorilla, the Bat Signal, and even Ed Asner

That area is usually covered by an ice sheet that is one and a half kilometers thick, but in summer the ice is at its lowest point and certain ‘features’ can emerge.

The angelic shape was visible through the pattern and composition of nearby dune areas, which are rich in dark, rocky minerals such as pyroxene and olivine.

The angel’s hand, which looks like it is reaching to the left, is actually a large sublimation well, a seasonal feature that forms when ice turns to gas, leaving voids and voids in the planetary surface.

Over the years, keen-eyed observers have also produced a rabbit, a dragon, and the Bat signal.

Last year, the MRO discovered an impact crater that resembled Ed Asner, CNET reported.

The first time a face was seen on the surface of Mars was in 1976, in images taken by NASA’s Viking 1 Orbiter.

Conspiracy theorists went crazy, but it was eventually proven to be an accidental alignment of mineral dunes.

WHY DO WE SEE STRANGE THINGS ON THE SURFACE OF MARS?

Pareidolia is the psychological response to seeing faces and other important and everyday objects in random stimuli.

It’s a form of apophenia, when people see patterns in random, disconnected data.

There have been several times when people have claimed to see religious images and themes in unexpected places.

On the red planet, one of the best known is the ‘face on Mars’ spotted by one of the Viking orbiters in 1976.

This later turned out to be just an accidental alignment of sand dunes.

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