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.

Beyond design limits: How to harness new materials and fabrication methods

New technologies such as additive manufacturing are improving the ability to turn advanced materials that combine extreme strength with super lightness into previously unimaginable shapes.

However, generating new designs that are able to fully exploit the properties of these advanced materials has proven challenging, and today’s design technologies are unable to recreate the level of physical detail and complexity made possible with innovative manufacturing capabilities and materials.

This is where DARPA comes in. In April of this year, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced its TRAnsformative DESign (TRADES) programme – a research effort to develop new mathematics and algorithms that can fully take advantage of this new design space.


“The structural and functional complexities introduced by today’s advanced materials and manufacturing methods have exceeded our capacity to simultaneously optimize all the variables involved,” explained Jan Vandenbrande, DARPA programme manager.

“We have reached the fundamental limits of what our computer-aided design tools and processes can handle, and need revolutionary new tools that can take requirements from a human designer and propose radically new concepts, shapes and structures that would likely never be conceived by even our best design programs today, much less by a human alone.”

DARPA uses a phased array radar and an aircraft skin as an example of a difficult structure to design with currently available tools, as its components vary considerably in their physical or functional properties.

While the components in this structure are usually designed separately before being joined, the TRADES programme envisions a more unified design – for example embedding the radar directly into the aircraft skin itself – which could reduce cost, size and weight of future military systems.

DARPA’s TRAnsformative DESign (TRADES) programme is a fundamental research effort to develop new mathematics and algorithms that can more fully take advantage of the almost boundless design space that has been enabled by new materials and fabrication methods. Image courtesy of DARPA

DARPA’s TRAnsformative DESign (TRADES) programme is a fundamental research effort to develop new mathematics and algorithms that can more fully take advantage of the almost boundless design space that has been enabled by new materials and fabrication methods. Image courtesy of DARPA

And what’s more, existing design tools are unable to take full advantage of the unique properties and processing requirements of the advanced materials, such as carbon fibre composites, which have their own shaping requirements. If these requirements are not taken into account during the design process, it could result in production difficulties or defects.

These problems could be mitigated or even eliminated if designers had the tools to account for these specific characteristics and requirements.

“Much of today’s design is really re-design based on useful but very old ideas. The design for building aircraft fuselages today, for example, is based on a spar-and-rib concept that dates back to design ideas from four thousand years ago when ancient ships such as the Royal Barge of Khufu used this basic design concept for its hull,” added Vandenbrande.

“TRADES could revolutionize such well-worn designs.”

Round the world and back in time: Solar Impulse plane lands in birthplace of flight

Solar Impulse 2, the sun-powered plane that has already flown around two thirds of its way around the world without a drop of fuel, has landed in Dayton, Ohio, the birthplace of flight.

The home of Wilbur and Orville Wright, the men who invented, built and flew the first successful aeroplane, the US city is the 12th stop on Solar Impulse’s round-the-world journey, and the fifth city in the country that the 72m-wide plane has landed.

The plane, piloted from Tulsa, Oklahoma, by Solar Impulse co-founder and CEO André Borschberg, landed in Dayton on 21st May at 9:56pm local time, completing the 692 mile journey, which took 16 hours and 34 minutes.

Borschberg flew at an altitude of up to 21,000ft (6,401m) with an average speed of 41.76 miles per hour (67.2km/h).

Bertrand Piccard (left) and André Borschberg pose with a model of the Wright Flyer, having landed in Dayton, Ohio, the birthplace of flight. Images courtesy of Solar Impulse

Bertrand Piccard (left) and André Borschberg pose with a model of the Wright Flyer, having landed in Dayton, Ohio, the birthplace of flight. Images courtesy of Solar Impulse

Borschberg and Solar Impulse alternate pilot, initiator and chairman Bertrand Piccard were greeted at Dayton by Stephen and Amanda Wright, great grandniece and great grandnephew of the pioneering Wright brothers.

Amanda Wright gave the duo a model of the Wright Flyer, the first plane to successfully fly.

“It was a dream to come here, and we made it, but Mother Nature decides, and it was meant to be,” Borschberg said to Ms Wright, referring to how changes in weather have shaped the route Solar Impulse 2 has taken.

“Your arrival was beautiful – you were overhead for an hour and a half, everybody could see you,” Piccard told Borschberg.

In addition to bringing the team to the most important place in aviation history, the flight also occurred exactly 89 years after the Spirit of St Louis became the first plane to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, manned by pioneer Charles Lindbergh.

Solar Impulse has said several times that the next flight will take the plane to New York, however it is not clear if there will be a stop in between Dayton and the Big Apple.

“This 12th leg of the Round-The-World adventure has brought us one step closer to finishing the crossing of the United States,” Solar Impulse said on its blog. “And for leg 13? Our team at the Monaco Mission Control Center is trying to identify a weather window.”

New York will be the final stop before the plane crosses the Atlantic to an as-yet-unconfirmed location in Europe.

The journey will be one of the longest the team has yet faced, meaning good weather will be essential to ensure the safety of the pilot.

After a 2014 crash killed one of its pilots, Virgin Galactic’s future was in doubt. But now the company is back on form, with a new spaceship and a positive message. We investigate whether space tourism is finally set to take off

In February 2016, sixteen months after the unexpectedly violent demise of SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic (VG) unveiled its latest vehicle, VSS Unity, in a ceremony at the company’s factory in Mojave, California. Attendees included families, customers and investors, including, we can assume, at least some of VG’s first 100 “future astronauts” — people who have paid $200,000 for a ticket that promises them six minutes in zero gravity, bobbing 110km above Earth, where they might gaze down upon the awesome curvature of our home planet.

After the crash in 2014, tickets were suspended. “For 12 hours after the accident we were very much trying to decide whether it was worth the risk of continuing,” VG’s CEO Richard Branson recently told The Guardian.

“I’m not the sort of person who gives up on things. The first time we crossed the Atlantic in the balloon it crashed, and we went on and did the Pacific. First time we crossed the Atlantic in a boat it sank, and we went on and got the record. So, generally speaking, we will pick ourselves up, brush ourselves down and carry on. But in the first 12 hours we did not know if any of the accident was our fault or whether it was a technical issue that couldn’t be rectified.”

Cause of the crash

A nine-month investigation by the US National Transportation Safety Board eventually revealed that a lethal combination of human error and inadequate safety procedures were behind the crash, and the death of test co-pilot Michael Alsbury.

The feathering system the vehicle had been fitted with, designed by American aerospace engineer Burt Ratan to reduce the vehicle’s speed and stabilize its descent on return to Earth, had been unlocked too soon, at Mach 0.92 instead of the intended speed of Mach 1.4, causing the vehicle to disintegrate in seconds.

I can’t remember anything about what happened but I must have come to during the fall

Alsbury died, while Peter Siebold, pilot-in-command, survived, plummeting a 10-mile fall while slipping in and out consciousness, trying to activate the parachute that would eventually save him.

It is not known if Siebold pulled the cord himself, or if it unfurled automatically. “I must have lost consciousness at first,” he later told reporters. “I can’t remember anything about what happened but I must have come to during the fall. I remember waving to the chase plane and giving them the thumbs-up to tell them I was OK. I know it’s a miracle I survived.”

It was nothing short of a miracle, given the conditions he endured: minus 60°C temperature; a lack of oxygen and barotrauma — an injury caused by a sudden change in pressure.

Tragic history

The death of test pilots is not an uncommon feature in space flight history, which has — up till this point — been largely governmental or military. NASA, for example, reported a 3% fatality rate during their manned tests.

Since the discontinuation of the space shuttle programme in 2011, they’ve more or less given up, diverting their resources into unmanned expeditions, like the New Horizons probe. Branson is aware that VG is working under a different and more exacting set of criteria and expectation.

“For a government-owned company, you can just about get away with losing 3% of your clients. For a private company you can’t really lose anybody.”

Unity’s improvements

So, how does Unity improve on its ill-fated predecessor? Details of the changes made to VG’s newest craft will be kept in-house for now, says space policy consultant and entrepreneur, James Muncy, but it’s safe to assume that extreme care will have been taken to improve the vehicle, in every aspect.

“All aerospace vehicles, when you make the second flight article, include lots of little changes based on things you learned during manufacturing or flight testing the first copy.  Human beings aren’t perfect, and we get better over time by learning and applying those learnings.


Images courtesy of Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic

“A client of mine says ‘the first copy of every design is a dog’, i.e it doesn’t achieve the full potential of the design — it doesn’t go as fast as it should, or as high as it should, or whatever.  But the second copy is much better. So, I don’t know what changes they made, because they aren’t necessarily easily visible to a non-expert observer.  But I suspect they made a lot of small improvements, perhaps some to make the job of the crew easier.”

Unity is an adaption of Rutan’s design for SpaceShipOne, a vehicle carried into the air by a mothership, the twin-fuselage WhiteKnightTwo. Rutan’s feathering system remains an integral part of the design, but has been adapted to ensure the crew’s safety. Is the lock that’s been fitted a guarantee against a repeat of SpaceShipTwo’s crash?

“Scaled Composites both designed and manufactured Spaceship Two,” says Muncy. “The design change made by the Spaceship Company is a safeguard against the same pilot mistake happening again.”

Galactic relaunch

According to journalist Andrew Anthony, who attended Unity’s unveiling, the event in the Mojave was more of an exercise in post-crash PR than anything else.

“Inside the hangar we hear speeches from Virgin Galactic bigwigs, trumpeting what a fabulous achievement the new aircraft is. But it’s essentially the same as the one that crashed, with a few minor alterations, including a safety lock to prevent the premature initiation of the feathering system that led to the crash,” he wrote.

“This event in the desert is not the launch of a new aircraft – more testing is required before it leaves the ground. It’s not even a product launch, because the new product is largely the same as the old one. But it could be seen as a relaunch of Virgin Galactic – a chance to announce to the world that everything is fine and back on track.”

It’s a fair assessment, and makes sense considering the rapid progress of VG’s peers and competitors. Elon Musk, the billionaire tech entrepreneur behind Space X’s private space cargo company has recently announced plans to send humans into space, while Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the head honcho at Blue Origin, also recently announced similar plans, touting 2017 as a launch date (although the first passengers are expected to be staff rather than public ticket-holders).

Does VG’s unique feathering system give the company an edge over its peers?

“In a word, no,” says Muncy. “ SpaceX is an orbital spaceflight company, and VG is not in competition with them. VG is a suborbital human spaceflight company and, soon, a very small payload orbital company.  Blue Origin is both a suborbital and (in the future) orbital company. Feathering is just a design approach to suborbital reentry that Burt Rutan used on Spaceship One and Spaceship Two.  Blue uses a symmetrical vertical-takeoff-landing design, so they don’t need it. Likewise SpaceX.”

Virgin’s future

The crash was both a public tragedy and a blow to VG’s advance, but Unity bodes well for Branson and co. Public interest in their progress certainly remains high — and understandably so, given the insider glimpses that have come out of the VG camp this year.

VG have marketed the destination of their journey as the pinnacle of space flight

VG have marketed the destination of their journey as the pinnacle of space flight, but Dave Mackay, VG’s chief test pilot, believes “the journey there” will be the thing passengers are truly wowed by, describing the ascent as akin to “putting your foot down in a performance car if the acceleration could go on for over a minute. At first there is silence, and then the engines fire up and you blast off, and it really gets going.”

It’s a tantalizing image, agrees Muncy, but pragmatism is key.

“If you had asked me in 2004 which was going to happen first, regular commercial operation of suborbital or orbital spaceflight, I would have said suborbital by years.  Blue may take people up commercially this year,” he said.

“But Boeing and SpaceX will fly people to orbit next year.  Blue is regularly flying their vehicle.  But Virgin is still down, and XCOR hasn’t finished making their Lynx.  We will see how big the market is when the vehicles are flying and people come back and say ‘again!’”

VG tickets will be on sale again soon, a snip (not) at $300,000. “We’ll slowly but steadily start bringing the price down as we build more spaceships and more spaceports around the world,” Branson has promised.


He’s inspired by the belief that space travel will make life here on Earth a better place, quoting Frank White’s The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution — a book that examines and extols the profound and often positive psychological effects that space travel has had on explorers recent and past.

His long-term vision is to open space to all, to make space travel a possibility for people who’ve done “relatively well” in life; though this writer is hard-pressed to guess what ‘relative’ is to a billionaire.

“If we can make it environmentally friendly, if we can make it affordable and if we can make it safe, then in time, your children and my grandchildren will all have the chance to go to space.”