Watney Would Approve: Ordnance Survey Maps Mars

The British mapping agency Ordnance Survey has created a map of the Martian surface using precision NASA data -- and it's beautiful.

The British mapping agency Ordnance Survey has created a map of the Martian surface using precision NASA data - and it's beautiful.

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As an avid hiker when I was a schoolkid, Ordnance Survey maps (yes, paper maps, no iPhone in sight) were an essential part of exploring the great British outdoors. Whether I was lost in the bogs of Dartmoor or trying to find the best route through the craggy Snowdonia terrain, an OS map was there, usually mud splattered and folded haphazardly in my pocket with a trusty plastic compass (yes, a real compass, with a magnetized arrow, no GPS in sight). I have fond memories that, no matter how lost I was all that was required was some practiced map work, combined with the stunning precision of an OS map, and my fellow mountaineers and I would find our way home safely.

So when I found out that the OS had commissioned their own map of the Martian surface, I was thrilled. And after seeing the full-resolution versions uploaded to the OS Flickr account, they didn't disappoint.

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The key thing with OS maps are the wonderfully detailed contours that pinpoint terrain height with a lovely soft palette that is both easy on the eye and filled with critical information. So, in keeping with the traditional OS style, precision NASA terrain data was used to plot landscape elevation, a style that has a more traditional vibe than many modern extraterrestrial maps.

"The cartographic style is something that is very different to your typical planetary map and is identifiable as an OS map," said OS Cartographic Designer Chris Wesson in a blog. Wesson took 2 months to design the final product.

"The key ingredients to this style are the soft colour palette, the traditional map features such as contours (in brown-orange) and grid lines (in cyan), and the map sheet layout complete with legend," he said. "We even have a far more traditional representation of map components such as title, scale bar and graticules when compared with equivalent maps by space agencies and so on. Various cartographic techniques such as multiple lighting angles and exaggerations have also been used to enhance the shading of the relief, as well as to produce a generalized set of contour lines and optimize map label placement."

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Included in the map are the locations of Mars missions and labels of named Mars craters and other geological features.

Of course, looking at the beautiful Mars terrain plotted on an OS map makes me think how nice it would be to take a paper version on a hike across Meridiani Planum to navigate to NASA's Mars rover Opportunity, or use the map to navigate my way through the depths of Valles Marineris. But Wesson is realistic about the use of paper in the Martian environment, considering the need for a spacesuit.

"It is a nice thought, that one day people could pinpoint the landscape around them from a map just as in the British countryside but the map may be quite different by then," he said. "I have to take my ski gloves off to unfold a piste map! So I imagine even if the content was useful some design thought into the product format would be required. Do astronauts have heads up displays on their visors?"

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Alas, it's not only the practicality of a paper map that causes a problem - if I wanted to relive my childhood hiking adventures on Mars with a map and compass, the compass probably wouldn't be of much use. Compasses need a global magnetic field to point to magnetic north; Mars doesn't have a global magnetic field. So I'd probably need the help of a Mars GPS system after all. Bummer.

Still, the OS map certainly shows how we can view the alien terrain in a more familiar, terrestrial light - especially if it can be adapted for future Martian use. Mark Watney would approve.

Sources: Flickr, Ordnance Survey

This is a section of the new Ordnance Survey Mars map, including landscape contours and points of interest.

The realism of "The Martian" is getting the attention of NASA -- and not only because of what fictional NASA astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) does on the surface. The agency has released several photographs showing real-life locations related to Watney's journey as he tries to get home to Earth. Also, the European Space Agency put out a map showing where Watney moved around on the surface (which we have put last in case you are worried about any spoilers.) Read on to see some of the places Watney had to think about when surviving on Mars.

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Watney's journey begins in Acidalia Planitia, the landing site for his mission (Ares 3). Inside the crater you can see deposits that were blown there by the wind. Think about it -- as Watney and his crew moved around the crater, every place they went to, they were the first to put bootprints in that sand. The University of Arizona's HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter helped gather data for this picture. "We can’t see the Ares 3 habitat because it arrives sometime in the future, so this is the 'before' image,"

joked the HiRISE website

earlier this year.

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While we think of Mars as a place devoid of humans, we've sent several landing missions over the years. It turns out that Ares 3 is not so far away from the landing site of

NASA Pathfinder

and its rover, Sojourner -- the first rover to explore Mars in 1997. This image shows portions of the craft after it was deployed, such as the airbags and possibly parts of the heat shield. Since Pathfinder, NASA has sent three more rovers to the surface:

Opportunity (2004), Spirit (2004)



(2012). Opportunity and Curiosity are still working on the surface. The European Space Agency plans to send its first rover to Mars as part of the

2018 ExoMars mission


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As the name "Ares 3" implies, the Ares program is just one of a series of missions to Mars. Ares 4 is the next one, targeting a famous crater on the Martian surface: Schiaparelli Crater. Nearly 300 miles (500 kilometers) across, it's hard to get the entire thing into one high-resolution image, so this is just a portion of it taken with HiRISE. According to NASA, the agency has

avoided dusty regions

like this for two reasons: the dust gets very warm during the day and cold at night (hard on equipment) and it's hard to know if there's anything interesting geologically in the bedrock underneath.

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Here's a challenge about moving around on Mars: it's really hard to judge distance, because there are no familiar human markings to help us find our way around. Astronauts faced this challenge on the moon, and as Watney uses his rover on the surface, he has to be similarly careful not to go in the wrong direction or overstretch his rover's battery. Mawrth Crater is one of the landmarks Watney plots. "The crater rim is not very distinct, and from the Martian surface it would be quite difficult to tell that you are even on the rim of a crater,"

NASA says


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The Opportunity rover (which landed in 2004) is somewhat close to where Watney is moving around. It's possible that Watney draws inspiration from the plucky machine, which is still working well on Mars long past its original 90-Martian-day expiry date. Among Opportunity's major milestones: driving

more than a marathon's worth of distance on Mars,

finding extensive evidence of water around its landing site and beyond, and

exploring the rim of a large crater

called Endeavour.

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While we initially could imagine craters as simple excavations of the surface, the Martian weather makes them far more complex than that. This is a

close-up view of Becquerel Crater

, somewhat near where Watney was moving on the surface. These thick deposits would be made either by water (in the ancient past, when Mars was wetter) or wind, based on what we know of similar processes on Earth. You don't see a lot of craters here because the deposits are so thin that the wind can easily erase any craters in the surface.

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Here you can see Watney's journey across the surface of Mars, as mapped by the European Space Agency (and German Space Agency, DLR) based on imagery from the Mars Express spacecraft. The colors represent different heights of features on the Martian surface, with blue being lowest and red being highest. You can see how Watney had to carefully make his way between craters to reach his destination, the Ares 4 landing site.

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