Cartographic Visions of Mars

How do you chose your summer travel destination? Checking websites, asking friends? And how do you navigate there? Using road signs? Online maps on your smartphone? Offline maps on smartphone? Paper maps? GSP turned on? Trusting your instincts?

OK now how would you do this on Mars if you were a Mars Astronaut? The mission: explore an area 100 km in radius (the size of Maryland or Belgium). What’s worth studying? How do you get there? What if you lose power? What landmarks will you have? With no roads, no vegetation, but lots of craters, rocks and dust, you will need a good map designed for planning and navigating – a map that can save your life.

“Where the orbital maps indicated a smooth plain, there was instead a vast crater field and collections of truck-sized boulders.” (On the Apollo 11 landing)

And you want to avoid a situation like that, just seconds before landing, as it happened during the Apollo 11 mission.

apollo astronaut.jpg

Apollo astronauts had a “cuff checklist” booklet  (see image above).

Apollo 13 traverse map from cuff checklist. No battery, GPS or wifi were needed to operate it. 

On Mars, it will probably be different.

We asked students, GIS professionals and citizen scientists to design a map, or map elements that could be useful for the astronauts who will use them in… well, at least 25 years from now.

Here we show you a selection of the works and ideas we received in our Exploration Zone competition:

Hiking on Mars


Map (c) Mateusz Pitura

Mateusz Pitura showed Mars in golden ochre colors. The Hebrus Valles habitat is next to the rampart flow front of a crater ejecta. The author evaluated all routes according to their difficulties. It is a hiking map on Mars.

  • Easy – < 15 km long. No special preparations required. Possibility of surface dust and small craters. Slopes under 10 degrees.
  • Medium – 15 -30 km. Rocks, rock rubble, small craters, surface dust, troughs and slope above 10 degrees.
  • Hard – >30 km. Hazards inlcude steep slopes, >30 cm rocks which could be an obstacle for rovers, big rock formations, craters, surface dust, troughs, ice and depressions.

The Visor Map

Illustration (c) Jonathan Ocon

Jonathan Ocon mapped Acheron Fossae. Usually we use some hand-held device to view maps, but on Mars, you are already within a device, the space suit. So instead of a paper checklist fixed on your arm, as they did on the Moon, we could use augmented and virtual reality technology and project geospatial information onto the visor used as a screen. In this view, it displays all data about nearby potential targets, date, time, and overview map.

The Map of a New Home


Map (c) Eian Ray

This map by Eian Ray shows Eastern Valles Marineris. The map contains contour lines, points of interests and distances from the hab that could be the most important data to know when you leave the hab and want to return in time. The map also contains fictional names:  ” Not only will this encourage mental and emotional continuity by exposing the mission participants to names of places they are already familiar with, but it will help foster a sense of place as the astronauts begin to develop a geospatial awareness of their new Martian home. … It softens the difficulties faced by those who’ve settled in a new land, while drawing new explorers to an unfamiliar land with visions of familiar sights and sounds, real or imagined” – Ray says. 

Showing directions and places of other landing sites is a unique feature of this map. ” In the unfamiliar environment of the Martian landscape, I wanted to create a sense of place for the explorers. – Ray explains –  On Mars there will be no place, culture, people, food, sights or smells that can provide this context. The life-support and equipment that accompany them will be intimately familiar to the explorers, but even these objects won’t fill many of the social, emotional, and geospatial needs firmly planted in our psyches through an Earthly evolutionary process. There are no sources of security, no places of refuge, and no ability to let one’s guard down. … To mitigate feelings of isolation and potential psychological distress I decided it was important to illustrate the bearings and distance from the landing site to all human activity on the planet. This is intended to convey to the astronauts that they are a part of something larger, something on-going, something that is connected and provides continuity to the rest of humanity despite
being 225 to 400 million kilometers from Earth. Similar to maritime maps of the New World during the 16
th century that included Europe and northwest Africa as reference points, this map includes significant historical places to provide the same geospatial context.”

Less is more

Map (c) Camillo Battistioli

Camillo Battistioli mapped Acheron Fossae. These maps don’t want to achieve photorealistic representation, instead, it shows the surface in a simplified way: contour lines become elevation slices, shades of brows show height and a grid helps our sense of distance.  The pathways are clear and simple, and a perspective view helps familiarize with the target area at a single glance. This happens when cartography, science and art meets.

All-in-one App for Mars

Illustrations (c) JJ Moran

Map data are just one of the many things Astronauts should know here and now. 3D spatial data, live streams of weather conditions – dust storms, approaching dust devils, potential or existing fog or CO2 frost -, health data can hugely affect the mission. It is also good to see what other astronauts – and robots – are doing. Astronauts likely won’t need to download apps from an appstore: they will have all in one. JJ Moran‘s app made with the Unity game engine shows a preview of what this app will look like. “After conceptualizing several possibilities it was decided that from an astronaut’s perspective, it would be best if the map product could be integrated with an existing GUI. This GUI could hypothetically be a single interface the astronauts could use for communications, mission updates, and map data.” – JJ says.