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.

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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.

Factor’s Gift Guide: 10 Gifts for Geeks and Scifi Supremos

Stuck trying to find a present for the geek or science fiction fan in your life? We’ve got the answer, with 10 fun but nerdy ideas for gifts this Christmas.

Pluto Plush

£14.95 from getDigital

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The change of Pluto’s status from planet to dwarf planet was hard to bear and has to have been an emotional blow to the planet itself. Luckily you now have the chance to provide poor Pluto some comfort with this 1:17,000,000 plush. With the heart and arms based on the famous images sent from NASA’s New Horizons space probe, this is probably the friendliest the ice planet has ever been.

Cross Marvel Tech2 Iron Man Gift Set

£65 from Cross

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To commemorate three of the most iconic characters from the Marvel franchise – Captain America, Spider-Man, and Iron Man – Cross have paired up their Tech2 Marvel pens with high quality journals to produce the perfect gift set for the Marvel fan in your life. And just in case the looks alone weren’t enough to sell you on this, the pen itself switches between stylus and ballpoint to work with touchscreens.

Spiral Planetary Nebula Mural

£25+ from Murals Wallpaper

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Showing the planetary nebula NGC 5189, this mural is a beautiful addition to any astronomically inclined home. The image, captured by NASA’s Hubble Wide Field Camera, shows the star as it consumes the last remaining fuel from its core and expels glowing clouds of gas. Lighting up the darkness of space with the bright gases of sulphur, hydrogen and oxygen, this mural adds some stellar colour to any home.

Robocup

€20.95 from MonsterZeug

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A great gift for fans of the ‘80s classic, this Robocop mug combines high quality ceramic with the grim visage of a cyborg to satisfy all caffeine needs. Once designed to fight crime, the part-man part-machine now serves to deliver your morning coffee. So whether you’re a fan yourself, or just trying to help a friend get over the reboot, be sure to add this to your Christmas list.

Zeitia Polygon Chrome Chandelier

£1,000 from The Chandelier & Mirror Company

zeitia-polygon-chrome-chandelier

If you want a lighting fixture for a geometrically inclined friend, this is the chandelier for you. Finished in chrome and composed of LED lights, the polygonal piece is sure to be as much of a talking piece as a source of illumination. Suitable for any room in the home, it may be pricey, but you’re unlikely to see much else like it.

Zero Gravity Fridge Rover

£4.99 from Mulberry Bush

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A brilliant little wind up car for any space geeks out there, the Fridge Rover makes use of magnets and a clockwork mechanism to defy gravity. A nice stocking filler, just wind it up and put it on your fridge to see the rover at work as it grips and goes. The science can be kept a secret, but the fun is certain to be obvious.

Scientific Lab Flasks

£14 from Not Another Bill

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Whether your recipients are just after décor that’s a little quirkier than usual or needing some new glassware for those secret experiments, these flasks have you covered. Each with 100ml or 250ml measurements, the glass homeware set features one beaker and two flasks. Bring a little science to your sauces by using them for measuring, or make your centrepiece a little more experimental and place them as a vase.

Townsend Star Wars R2-D2 Fountain Pen

£575 from Cross

townsend-star-wars-limited-edition-r2-d2-fountain-pen

You don’t need to go to a galaxy far, far away to get a great gift for the Star Wars fan in your life this Christmas. Instead, grab this limited edition pen to commemorate the original movie. With deep-etched engravings on brushed platinum plate and presented in a luxury gift box, each of these pens is individually serialised. Well worthy of a triumphant whistle.

LEGO Doctor Who Set

£49.99 from Forbidden Planet

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LEGO continues its trend of producing the best licensed products out there with this Doctor Who set. Created by fan-designer Andrew Clark, this set brings together the Doctor and Clara inside the Tardis to face some of their iconic enemies. Choose from the Eleventh or Twelfth Doctor and then set him against a pair of Daleks or a Weeping Angel. Don’t blink, though, or you might miss this amazing gift.

Human Ingredients T-Shirt

£20 from the Science Museum Shop

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Ever wondered just what it is that goes into making you, well, you? Wonder no more, as the Science Museum has you covered with this handy t-shirt. Presented in the manner of a food label, the t-shirt’s design lists the most commonly found elements in the human body. Your nearest and dearest will never be caught out by the pub quiz again as right in front of their nose is the answer: they’re 65% oxygen.

If you had to retake control of a driverless car would you be ready?

Researchers from Stanford University have concluded that drivers who retake control of an autonomous car are more likely to be involved in an accident.

The study, published in the first issue of Science Robotics, found that roads could become especially dangerous when drivers made the transition back to being in control of autonomous vehicles due to changes in speed and other changes in driving conditions.

“Many people have been doing research on paying attention and situation awareness. That’s very important,” said lead author of the research and former graduate student in the Dynamic Design Lab at Stanford University, Holly Russell.

“But, in addition, there is this physical change and we need to acknowledge that people’s performance might not be at its peak if they haven’t actively been participating in the driving.”

Featured image courtesy of Steve Jurvetson

Featured image courtesy of Steve Jurvetson

During testing all drivers were given advance warning that they would be put back in control of a driverless car and were given the opportunity to drive around the testing track a number of times, so they could feel for themselves changes in speed or steering that may occur while the car drives itself.

However, during the trial itself, the drivers’ steering manoeuvres differed significantly from their ability when in control of the car from start to finish.

“Even knowing about the change, being able to make a plan and do some explicit motor planning for how to compensate, you still saw a very different steering behaviour and compromised performance,” said co-author of the research and research associate in the Revs Program at Stanford, Lene Harbott.

driverless-cars

Although no driver was so thrown off by the changes in steering that they drove off-course, the fact that there was a period of altered steering behaviour increased the likelihood of an accident occurring.

However, the Stanford study only addressed one specific example of the autonomous car to human driver handover; there is still a lot to learn about how people respond in other circumstances, depending on the type of car, the driver and how the driving conditions have changed.

“If someone is designing a method for automated vehicle handover, there will need to be detailed research on that specific method,” said Harbott. “This study is tip of an iceberg.”