A British cartographer has designed an Earthling-friendly map of Mars, using data collected from NASA satellites and rovers.
Chris Wesson, map designer for Ordnance Survey, Britain’s official mapping agency, created the group’s first map of another planet, employing many of the same techniques used for Earth-based mapping to represent a region of Mars in a way that non-scientists can picture.
After all, governments and private companies are hoping to send human explorers to the Red Planet in the next decade or two, so they’ll need a clear map.
Mr. Wesson’s cartographic interpretation of the planet’s dry, dusty, and pockmarked terrain covers 3,672 by 2,721 kilometers (2,281 by 1,690 miles) at a scale of 1 to 4 million. The map shows the detail of a region in the northern part of the planet known as Western Arabia Terra, which includes the landing sites of two NASA rovers: Mars Pathfinder (in northwest Ares Vallis) and Opportunity (east of Margaritifer Terra), as Science Alert has pointed out.
The map, like many of the agency’s Earth-based ones, uses an organic color palette and traditional map features, such as contours (in brown-orange), grid lines (in cyan), and a layout with a scale and legend. The idea is to make it more user-friendly than the technical maps used by scientists.
“I think even though the principles are the same, the design and the aesthetics of an Earth map differ considerably from any planetary map that I’ve seen before,” Wesson said in an Ordnance Survey blog post. “I love planetary maps and find them visually very appealing … but they do often seem to be, as is their inherent nature, very scientific and unnatural in their presentation,” he said.
The hardest part to capture on his map, said Wesson, was elevation on a planet with no seas. Sea level is considered zero elevation on Earth, serving as the starting point for measuring altitude.
Yet on Mars, which is dry, the starting point is based on the minimum atmospheric pressure that would be necessary to sustain water, which could be hundreds of meters above the head of someone standing on the surface of the planet.
“Mars is a very different topography to the Earth to map,” said Wesson. The planet is dotted with hundreds of thousands of impact craters formed by meteorites that smashed into it over its lifetime.
“It took a while to get my head around the height information. A lot of the area of the map is at a minus elevation,” he said.
Wesson designed the map for University College London scientist Peter Grindrod, who is working with the European Space Agency on launching its European ExoMars rover in 2018 to explore the surface of Mars and potential life on the planet.
“I was thinking ahead; I knew we were going to drive around, and scientists and engineers needed to know exactly where the rover was,” Dr. Grindrod told The Times in London.
“I make maps like this for my research but they are scientific products – they are not the easiest things to look at,” he said.
“The Ordnance Survey have spent decades making these things easy to understand,” he said, “and they are beautiful objects in, and of, themselves.”
NASA last year launched its own, interactive map of Mars for real people, called Mars Trek. Users can zoom in and out of rover landing sites and other landmarks, trace the paths of rovers on the planet’s surface, and most importantly, explore astronaut Mark Watney’s journey, as seen in “The Martian,” from Acidalia Planitia to the large crater Schiaparelli.