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.

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.