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.

os-map-mars-2

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.

Breakthrough Starshot to develop first spacecraft destined for newly discovered Proxima b planet

Pete Worden, chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation and former director of NASA’s Ames Research Centre, earlier today expanded on the plans of the Breakthrough Starshot initiative to explore the Centauri star system.

As part of the European South Observatory’s (ESO) announcement of their discovery of Proxima b, a planet in the Alpha Centauri system that may be capable of supporting life, Worden explained how the Breakthrough Initiative would be a part of the future exploration of the system and Proxima b specifically, suggesting that the organisation would be the first to send a probe to the planet.

Breakthrough Starshot was announced on April 12 of this year by tech entrepreneur Yuri Milner and scientist Stephen Hawking at the One World Observatory in New York.

Starshot is a privately funded initiative aimed at developing humanity’s first probe to reach another star system. Specifically, the Starshot Initiative involves the development of a nanocraft, weighing just 1g, which will then be attached to a lightsail and pushed, alongside hundreds of other such craft, into space using an extremely powerful laser.

The laser will push these nanocraft in the direction of the Centauri system at approximately 20% of the speed of light, a speed which will see the craft reach their destination in 20 years. Upon arrival, the craft will then begin to beam data collected on Proxima b back to Earth via laser.

As Worden said: “The technology is today is sufficient enough to think about these things. The key question of our initiative was whether there are potentially life-bearing planets orbiting these stars.

“We have assembled a team of the world’s most knowledgeable experts to assess this question. With today’s announcement we now know that there is at least one planet, the one orbiting Proxima Centauri that has some characteristics similar to the Earth.”

The importance of the project is obviously centred around the possibility of life on the newly discovered planet. Starshot’s craft will not only be mankind’s first probe launched towards the Proxima Centauri star, but may well be the first to discover life outside of our planet.

Yuri Milner holds a 1g nanocraft, which could be the first spacecraft to be sent to Proxima b. Image courtesy of Bryan Bedder / Getty Images

Yuri Milner holds a 1g nanocraft, which could be the first spacecraft to be sent to Proxima b. Image courtesy of Bryan Bedder / Getty Images. Featured image courtesy of Breakthrough Starshot

The organisation is working with the ESO to achieve this goal, but is privately funded with an initial research budget of $100m over the next few years. The Starshot project is overseen by Yuri Miller, Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg and aims to build a prototype system costing between $500m and $1bn.

Once their concepts have been successfully developed, the aim is to build a full system that will send the nanocraft to Proxima and Alpha Centauri within a generation. This full system is believed to cost in a range approximate to that of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider and is intended to draw funding from global public-private partnerships.

The final question, however, is just how long it will be before we actually achieve travel to the star?

“I believe that later this century and with our own plans that we think maybe by 2060 we can arrive at Proxima Centurai and we can get these images,” said Worden. “We hope to see: is there life there? There could be advanced life there. Those are some of those great questions that are going to be answered this century.”

ESO confirms the discovery of Earth’s closest potentially habitable neighbour

Astronomers have today confirmed the existence of a planet orbiting the sun’s nearest neighbour, Proxima Centauri, which has the potential to host liquid water, and therefore life.

The exoplanet in question, Proxima b, is thought to be the Earth’s closest potentially habitable neighbour, making this discovery a major landmark in humanity’s exploration of the universe.

“We’ve found an exoplanet orbiting Proxima Centauri. It’s the nearest exoplanet we will ever find, because it’s the nearest star to the Sun, and we are very excited about it,” explained a delighted Dr Guillem Anglada-Escudé, from the School of Physics and Astronomy, Queen Mary, University of London, who participated in the epic research project.

The confirmation, which has been made by astronomers working with the European Southern Observatory (ESO), has finally resolved rumours about potential existence of such a planet, which have surrounded the astronomy world since the first hints were detected back in 2013.

“The first hints of a possible planet were spotted back in 2013, but the detection was not convincing. Since then we have worked hard to get further observations off the ground with help from ESO and others,” added Anglada-Escudé. This was achieved through the Pale Red Dot campaign, which charted systematic efforts around the world to confirm the signal, and was concluded in April of this year.

An artist's impression of the newly discovered planet. Above: a possible view from the ground of Proxima b. Images courtesy of ESO/M. Kornmesserc

An artist’s impression of the newly discovered planet. Above: a possible view from the ground of Proxima b. Images courtesy of ESO/M. Kornmesserc

Proxima Centauri is just 4.243 light years away from Earth, and although this means a trip there is highly unlikely to occur within our lifetime, it does make it considerably closer than last year’s big planetary announcement, Kepler 452-b, which is 1,400 light years away.

However, while Kepler 452-b is a relatively close match to our home planet, Proxima b differs from Earth in a number of ways. It is slightly larger – at least 1.3 times Earth’s size – but has a dramatically smaller orbit, of just 11.2 days. This is because Proxima b orbits its sun at a distance of just 7 million km, which is only 5% of the distance between the Earth and our own Sun.

This is possible because Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star, making it much smaller than our own Sun – it’s actually much closer in size to Jupiter – and giving it an effective temperature of just 3,050K, compared to the Sun’s 5,777K, making it considerably cooler.

However, with no images to refer to, there is only so much the scientists can say with absolute certainty about Proxima b. Nevertheless, they can speculate with relative confidence, particularly around the conditions that would determine whether it was capable of hosting life.

They are reasonably confident that the planet is terrestrial, meaning it has physical ground rather than being a gas ball, however the matter of an atmosphere is more complex.

“The bottom line is we have no clue whether this planet has an atmosphere or not, or whether it has water or not, but the existence of it is actually plausible,” said Dr Ansgar Reiners, from the Institut für Astrophysik, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen.

Dr. Guillem Anglada-Escudé

Dr Guillem Anglada-Escudé explains the discovery during an ESO press conference held today in Garching, Germany. Image courtesy of ESO/M. Zamani

While some have suggested that the level of solar flare activity from Proxima Centauri means an atmosphere could not survive, the scientists do not believe this to be the case.

“It is a general misconception that these red dwarfs are flaring like hell and nothing can survive in the vicinity because it is so active,” said Reiners.  “If it does have an atmosphere it would not get blown away or whatever by today’s activity of the star.”

If there is an atmosphere, however, it would mean the planet had a similar ground-based temperature to the Earth.

“The temperature they would have on the surface of this planet if there was no atmosphere would actually be -40°C, but if it has an atmosphere, it is actually pushing up the temperature through the greenhouse effect, meaning it would actually be above 0°C,” he added.

There is reasonable confidence, however, that the planet is tidally locked, meaning it takes as long to rotate on its own axis as it does to orbit its star. This would not only mean that a day on Proxima b would be as long as a year, but would also always have one side facing the sun, eliminating the conventional day-night cycle.

This has also been suggested by some as a reason why the planet could not have an atmosphere, however the scientists again rejected this as a misconception about the requirements to host life.

As the nearest exoplanet to Earth, Proxima B will no doubt in the future become a valuable focus of research.

“Proxima b is actually the next one outside the solar system, and that provides unmatched observation opportunities,” said Reiners. “It will be possible in the future to take pictures of this system with technology that is not too far away.”

While currently active telescopes do not provide a great enough resolution to make out Proxima b, there are several in the works with the potential, including the European Extremely Large Telescope, which is set to begin operations in 2024.

And when that happens, we could get our first images of our nearest neighbour, and if we’re really lucky, the first evidence of life beyond our planet.

What came first the drone egg or drone apathy?

Is it possible to be impressed and unimpressed by a product at the same time? The gorgeous views in this (over) dramatic video were provided by PowerEgg, an egg-shaped drone that features an integrated 4K camera capable of producing professional-grade photographs and videos.

While this particular promotional video wouldn’t have survived a critique by Alan Sugar or Donald Trump on the Apprentice – show us the drone guys – it’s undoubtedly an impressive feat of technology and you can just imagine the PowerEgg being used to film Julie Andrews bleating out “the hills are alive…”.

But there’s something about an egg-shaped drone, in a world where drones can carry people, that leaves me slightly empty. It’s a serious piece of technology; it takes amazing pictures, and it’s designed beautifully, but does the world need a drone egg priced at £1290? Probably not, but if it does then I accept it’ll be me, not PowerVision – the Egg’s makers – that will be left with an oval or round object usually containing a developing embryo on my face.