Martian cartography: How Ordnance Survey mapped Mars

The world’s oldest mapping agency has turned its expertise to the Red Planet, with impressive results. But how do you map the surface of a planet 48 million miles away?

It’s been Britain’s best-loved mapping agency for years, providing navigation tools for organisations and stubborn dads finally pulling U-turns across the country.

Now, Ordnance Survey (OS) has taken its next giant leap for mapkind, creating a digital recreation of Mars that could have potential applications for future space missions.

Created using NASA open data, the map covers a 3672km x 2721km chunk of the Red Planet, has been produced to a scale of 1 to 4 million and even features a few of Mars’ scarce landmarks rendered in OS’ familiar style.

Mapping Mars

You might think that charting somewhere visited only by curious rovers and a bewildered Matt Damon would be a new challenge, but not so. At least not according to Chris Wesson, the map’s creator, who told Factor that after some trepidation the process bore surprising similarities to any other mapping task.

os-map-mars-1“To be honest, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself in for. I had no idea what was going to be sent to me, what format the files would be in, or whether the process would be completely different from the one that we usually do,” he said.

“I was quite pleasantly surprised to find out that even though it was a lot more interesting than usual – in the aspect that it was completely different to the data we tend to capture just in terms of the landscape – actually in terms of using it, it was incredibly similar. Certainly, the theoretical side of how we assembled a map is exactly the same as we would do for any OS mapsheet.”

That’s not to say that mapping the stars wasn’t a little alien to the company, whose first map of another planet is also its first outside British shores since the mid-90s.

“The landscape did present a few issues; it’s a rather rough and uneven surface, and the fact that there’s no features on the surface that we would recognise on an OS map such as woods and water and roads and railway tracks and paths – that definitely made it a lot more difficult to get to grips with,” Wesson added.

Technology-assisted cartography

Today’s world is certainly one that’s more mapped than ever. OS itself is sitting on a database of more than 450 million geographic features with up to 10,000 more added every day, and scarcely a week goes by when joggers aren’t being papped by a speeding Google Street View car.


With this in mind, does Wesson think technology has made mapping any easier?

“It might have got quicker and more efficient, but it may not necessarily become easier,” he said. “I guess where its comparable on the Mars map would be actually labelling the contours. There’s lots of software out there that will automatically label contours, but it won’t be anywhere near as good as the cartographers used to do them manually.

“Its almost as if it gives a shortcut to get there, but then we end up having to sort out any things that are not as they should be afterwards. There’s still a lot of improvement that could be made.”

That said, Ordnance Survey certainly knows its way around a challenge. The company’s past projects include transforming Scottish mountain Ben Nevis into a VR gaming experience for the Oculus Rift, and it’s now said to be involved in a £20m government-sponsored project to make Great Britain a world leader in driverless vehicles.

Traversing the Red Planet

Similarly, the OS Mars map could lead to all kinds of out-of-this-world applications. So says Peter Grindrod, a scientist at Birkbeck, University of London, who is currently assisting with landing plans for the European Exomars rover on Mars in 2019.

He told Factor he requested the map as part of an experiment into whether it  could be used for future Mars missions, and why OS would be best for the job.

“OS-style maps are remarkable things – they convey a huge amount of information that is both clear and attractive. Being able to use the same OS-style for future Mars maps means that we would hope for a similar effect,” Grindrod said.

“For example, future rover missions could have their traverses mapped on a detailed OS base map, with an elevation resolution almost the same as those we have for the Earth.

There’s ultimately no reason I can see at all why someone would not be able to do the same things with the Mars map as they can in the British countryside

“It’s my hope that such traverse maps would then be useful to both the scientific community and the general public, because of the OS mapping style demonstrated here.”

Ordnance Survey are hardly the first to map mars – just this month NASA released a 360-degree video that gave viewers the chance to potter about the planet’s surface from a rover’s perspective – but Wesson agrees that it’s the clarity of the agency’s maps that make them a potentially valuable resource for space exploration.

“A lot of people have seen an OS map at some point in their lives so a lot of people can relate to them, but it’s also about the way we present the information. We tend to present things in a less scientific fashion to the other maps of Mars.”

Walking on Mars

Images courtesy of Ordnance Survey. The full sized map can be downloaded here.

Images courtesy of Ordnance Survey. The full sized map can be downloaded here.

With claims from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk that humans could be on Mars in around ten years, it’s no surprise that Wesson has given some thought to his map being the one being used to venture across its surface.

“The fact that there could be people could be walking around on the surface of Mars –all that sort of thing was sort of exciting so that’s why we took it up,” he said.

“There’s ultimately no reason I can see at all why someone would not be able to do the same things with the Mars map as they can in the British countryside.”

Given that NASA has reportedly pushed its estimated date for human landings on Mars to 2035, it may actually be a bit longer before we’re trekking across the fourth rock from the sun. However, if Ordnance Survey’s map has potential, we’ll be more than ready to show ourselves around.

Researchers develop painkiller with no side effects

Tests of a new painkiller, Tiovyurtsin, have shown that it works for longer, suppresses pain symptoms of various etiologies and has no toxic effects on the body. Prolonged use (28 days) of the drug does not induce drug dependence, so the drug could be used as a replacement for morphine.

New species of giant herbivorous dinosaur found in outback Australia

A new species of giant herbivorous dinosaur, called Savannasaurus elliottorum, has been found in outback Australia. The new specimen has led researchers to propose a new theory of how the species spread across the ancient megacontinent of Gondwana, which joined Australia, Africa, Antarctica and South America.

Source: The Guardian

Our theory on how solar systems are formed might be wrong

The discovery of the first "binary–binary" – two massive companions around one star in a close binary system, one so-called giant planet and one brown dwarf, or "failed star" – has led a University of Florida astronomer to question whether what we understand about solar system formation is correct.

Source: PHYS.ORG

Mars lander lost on its descent, ESA confirms

A space probe that was developed to look for signs of life on Mars has been lost, the European Space Agency has confirmed. Mission controllers said they are in the dark about the fate of the Schiaparelli probe, which is believed to have touched down on Wednesday after a seven-year journey.

Source: Sky News

Nintendo's new console is a hit with fans but not with investors

Shares in Nintendo fell by as much as 7% following the release of a teaser video for its upcoming hybrid games console the Nintendo Switch. Despite a largely positive reception from fans and media alike, Switch failed to wow Japanese investors, with many, it seems, not ready to forgive Nintendo for the performance of the Wii U.

Source: Ars Technica

Tesla to make all its new cars self-driving

Electric carmaker Tesla has said all of its cars will have the hardware – basically a super-computer in a car – needed to drive completely on their own. But despite cameras, sensors and radars being introduced, it is still expected to be years before Tesla's vehicles become fully self-driving.

Source: BBC

Factor Magazine Issue 29: The Future of Politics – Out Now

In a Venn diagram of politics and unbelievable events, 2016 represents the meeting point, where we finally acquiesced to madness and accepted that it is perfectly reasonable for Donald Trump to run for president.

But beyond Trump’s potential presidency there are loads of examples that prove 2016 is the maddest year in Western politics in living memory. Britain has voted to leave the European Union; the US Democratic nominee was investigated by the FBI and – I don’t know if we mentioned – the US Republican nominee is Donald Trump. Add the alleged Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly bizarre behaviour following the totally-not-fake Turkish coup, and you have a year where nothing, no matter how improbable, is definitely off the political table.

So in this, our politics issue, we attempt to make sense of the madness and find out how technology is turning the tables on “post-truth politics”.


With the presidential election just weeks away, we look at how technology has played a role on the campaign trail, and ask whether a growth in support for third-party candidates could ever one day lead to them being a viable alternative to president.

Plus with accusations of Russia ordering a state-sponsored cyber attack on the DNC, we hear from Shawn Henry, former executive assistant director of the FBI, to consider the impact hacking is having on democracy.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Union is in peril. We discover how Brexit is just the start, and find out what lies ahead for the stricken community. Plus we look at Turkey’s bizarre move to ban cloud-based file sharing services, and ponder the motives behind such a decision.


On both sides of the pond, truth has become highly mutable within politics this year. We look at whether automated fact checking could allow technology to bring truth back to politics, consider the statistics behind Trump and Clinton’s statements and find out how The Simpsons predicted Trump’s rise 16 years ago.

Plus, we look at how deep learning could be used to more accurately predict election results, and consider the technology being used to better engage voters. And if that wasn’t enough, we’ll also look at the UK financial system’s tentative embrace of cryptocurrencies.

And if you’re sick of politics, we also hear from ESA astronaut Tim Peake about his six-month stay on the International Space Station, and discover how a simple change of camera angle laid the foundations for the Total War games we know and love.

As well as this there’s all the latest news, reviews, and we’ll look at Marty McFly’s Nike Mags and see how the sewing industry is about to be automated in Issue 29 of Factor magazine – out now on iPad and online.

Scientists unlock wireless charging for airborne drones

Using inductive coupling, scientists have made a breakthrough that allows them to wirelessly transfer power to a drone while it is still flying. The technology could open up a host of possibilities, including allowing drones to fly indefinitely, simply hovering over a ground support vehicle when in need of a recharge.

Inductive coupling is a concept originally demonstrated over 100 years ago by Nikola Tesla, the principle being that by tuning two copper coils into each other with electronics, you can enable the wireless exchange of power at a certain frequency.

Inductive coupling has been experimented with for decades, but until now researchers have failed to utilise the technology to wirelessly power flying devices.

The researchers behind the breakthrough, from Imperial College London, demonstrated their method by altering the electronics and removing the battery of an off-the-shelf quadcopter drone.

A receiving antenna was made by encircling the drone’s casing with a copper foil ring, and a transmitter device on the ground was made out of a circuit board and connected to electronics and a power source, creating a magnetic field. The researchers believe that this is the first demonstration to show how this wireless charging method can be efficiently used with a flying object, and expect it to open up a range of potential applications.

“Imagine using a drone to wirelessly transmit power to sensors on things such as bridges to monitor their structural integrity,” explained Professor Paul Mitcheson, from the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College London. “This would cut out humans having to reach these difficult-to-access places to re-charge them.

“Another application could include implantable miniature diagnostic medical devices, wirelessly powered from a source external to the body. This could enable new types of medical implants to be safely recharged, and reduce the battery size to make these implants less invasive.”

Images courtesy of Imperial College London

Images courtesy of Imperial College London

Drones are currently limited in their commercial usage by the distance they can travel and the duration for which they can do so.

Despite growing possibilities for usage, the limited availability of power and re-charging requirements means that it is hard to make full use of drones in their capacity for roles such as surveillance or search and rescue. The development of efficient wireless power transfer technology would solve these endurance problems and enable a wide range of advancements.

“In the future, we may also be able to use drones to re-charge science equipment on Mars, increasing the lifetime of these billion dollar missions,” added Mitcheson.

“We have already made valuable progress with this technology and now we are looking to take it to the next level.”

For now, the technology is still very much in its infancy and the Imperial team’s technology only allows the drone to fly ten centimetres above the magnetic field transmission source.

However, they are now exploring collaborations with industrial partners, and have estimated that a commercially available product could be ready in a year.