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.

Volkswagen wants its driverless, zero-emission car to know everything about you

Volkswagen has taken to the stage at the Paris Motor Show 2016 to announce that by 2025 it will release a fully-automated, zero-emission car.

The Volkswagen I.D. will be ready to launch as a zero-emission vehicle, powered by a 125 kW / 170 PS electric motor and offering a range of up to 600 kilometres, in 2020.

Driverless technology will then be added by 2025.

“In 2020 we will begin to introduce an entire family of electric vehicles on the market. All of them will be based on a new vehicle architecture which was specially and exclusively developed for all-electric vehicles,” explained the chairman of the Board of Management for Volkswagen Brand, Dr Herbert Diess.

“Not for combustion engine or plug-in hybrid vehicles. The I.D. stands for this new era of all-electric vehicles, for a new automotive era: electrical, connected and autonomously driving.”

I.D. owners have the option of either taking control of the car themselves or taking advantage of car’s driverless technology and activate “I.D. Pilot” mode, which can be switched on by touching the VW logo on the steering wheel.

Once I.D. pilot is activated, the steering wheel disappears into the instrument panel, which Volkswagen promises “gives the driver an entirely new feeling of space”.

Volkswagen’s I.D. won’t use a conventional car key; instead, a smartphone can be used as a “digital key” to open the car and enable the vehicle to start.

Using a digital key will enable the I.D. to recognise who is in the car and load up a customisable “Volkswagen ID”.

This ID is an individual profile that stores such information as personal seat and climate control settings, favourite radio stations and playlists, settings of the sound system, contact data for friends and business partners and the navigation system configuration.

Image courtesy of Volkswagen

The Elon Musk Offer: Extinction or Explosion

Elon Musk wants to take you to Mars. He also wants you to know that there’s a very good chance you’ll die doing so. Yesterday, at the International Astronautical Congress, Musk announced a lot more about SpaceX’s plans to get to Mars and opened up a little about the notion of colonising the Red Planet. He was also, almost shockingly, upfront about just how much such a mission is likely to kill you.

Musk’s speech, entitled Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species, largely consisted of explaining more about SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System and how the company plans to get people and supplies to Mars.

The plan involves 28,730,000 pounds of thrust and reusable booster rockets. And while Musk spoke about colonisation, it was in a way that very much avoided any kind of commitment on how such a colony would work and what role SpaceX would possibly play in it.

For now it seems the entrepreneur is very much focused on just getting there.

Images courtesy of SpaceX

Images courtesy of SpaceX

What was mentioned was the idea of a self-sustaining civilisation, presumably making some sort of use of Musk’s various clean energy ventures, and the goal of making the cost of a trip to Mars that of a median price house in the United States.

In order to do so we need four things: reusable rockets, refuelling the spaceship in space, using methane fuel rather than traditional propellant and harvesting methane fuel from Mars itself.

If it sounds like a lot of work, be assured it is; Musk made no mention of the infrastructure that would support this though he did point out that there would be no shortage of jobs on Mars if successful. Provided you get there of course.

Even allowing for the overcoming of technical challenges, there is still a very good chance that our initial tries at getting people there will fail horribly.

“The risk of fatality will be high,” Musk told the audience. “There’s no way around it. It would be basically, are you prepared to die? If that’s okay, you’re a candidate for going.

“The probability of death is quite high on the first mission.”

Elon Musk during the talk

Elon Musk during the talk

Musk’s honesty is kind of refreshing, even if it’s distinctly bleak. The chances of such a mission going perfectly on the first try are very low and it’s important to remember for anyone caught up in the excitement of going multiplanetary that there is a good chance of a cold death in space waiting out there.

That said, as Musk pointed out, staying on Earth indefinitely almost certainly ends in some kind of extinction event.

There is currently far too much uncertainty around the way in which a colony on Mars would actually work, the likelihood is that there would have to be some kind of governmental oversight of the colonisation and there are obviously chances of a whole new space race that come along with that.

Musk’s presentation was there to offer up a choice: stay on Earth and face extinction in what may be the far future or go to Mars now and almost definitely go out in a blaze of glory.

The rollout of 4G has transformed our ability to communicate on the go. The former CEO of EE, the first company to bring 4G to the UK, explains how our browsing habits have been forever changed, and what it has meant for the country

It’s quite a claim to call something a “revolution”.

However, in the right circumstances it’s entirely appropriate. Going back to the dictionary definition, one meaning for revolution is “A sudden, complete or marked change in something.”

I would say that the launch of 4G mobile technology was such a change. My experience of it came at the helm of EE, which launched the UK’s first and leading 4G network in 2012.

To explain why it was so revolutionary, we should first cast our minds back ten years or so. At that time, there was relatively little movement in the UK’s mobile market. It was all about calls, texts and a little bit of web on the move. Third-generation, or 3G, mobile networks had been built for these services and further investment was lacking.

Meanwhile, the world had been changing. The Internet had been with us for twenty years, and the smartphone market really started to boom in 2007, catapulting “anytime, anywhere” online access (and expectations) into our pockets.

The existing 3G infrastructure just hadn’t been set up to cater for the surge in data traffic that resulted. If you think back, I’m sure you can remember the days of waiting on tenterhooks for an email to send, or looking at a flickering screen as you waited for a webpage to load on your phone. As for watching video on the go? Forget it.

The launch of 4G

It was time for something new. My company decided to take the plunge and introduce Britain’s first 4G network, which would have the speeds and capacity to manage the needs of data-hungry devices and customers. (How we did it is another story in its own right.)

EE came into the world on 30th October 2012.

We paid close attention to what was happening on the new 4G network and started to review the findings in the EE 4GEE Mobile Living Index report. Within a year of its launch, we saw a rapid rise in the use of social media over the network. In the six months leading up to December 2013 this rose from 13% to 18% of our overall 4G traffic.

Within a year of its launch, we saw a rapid rise in the use of social media over the network

We also surveyed customers and found that those set to do their Christmas shopping via mobile had nearly tripled. 57% of our customers were accessing the Internet via mobile for more than one hour every day, with 21% spending more than three hours.

Later reports showed a sharp hike in the amount of time our customers were spending streaming music, TV programmes and movies on the go – and a reduction in the amount of time they were spending connected to their home broadband supply. New connected devices – like cameras and in-car Wi-Fi – started to take off. The availability of 4G connectivity had started to change people’s daily habits.

People were doing more online, on the move, because they could.

Revolutionary impact

But the true value of 4G and its impact on the way we communicate was really brought home to me at the end of last year.

We were able to demonstrate the significant impact of enhanced connectivity on British businesses, including its most vital public services:

  • In the NHS, improved communication between patients and care providers has the potential to reduce missed and unnecessary appointments by 65%, which would represent a saving of £585m
  • Public housing providers could get connected on site to 4G within three days, rather than waiting a month for a broadband connection, enabling homes to be built more quickly and cost-effectively
  • Police forces deploying 4G mobile devices could save hundreds of thousands of hours of staff time per year, the equivalent of more than 100 officers on the beat

Olaf Swantee is the co-author of new book, The 4G Mobile Revolution – Creation, innovation and transformation at EE, published by Kogan Page, priced £19.99.

At the same time, new research we released with the Centre for Economic & Business Research (CEBR) and YouGov estimated that the efficiency and productivity gains made from 4G would give an £8.9bn boost to UK Plc in 2015, and continue to rise each year.

Finally, EE was selected by the Home Office to provide Britain’s new Emergency Services network, giving 300,000 of these critical workers access to 4G voice and data for the first time.

That’s why I say that the launch of 4G was a revolution. We really did pioneer a sudden, complete and marked change for the UK and kick-started a new communications age. It was fantastic to be a part of it.

There’s more to come, by the way. Just wait until 5G arrives! That’s when things are going to get really interesting… Watch this space.