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.

India launches 20 satellites in 26 minutes

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has completed the largest satellite launch in its history by sending 20 satellites into orbit in one launch. The launch emphasises India's place in the global space market.

Source: Science Alert

ESA wants to put a "space base" between the Earth and the Moon

The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced it plans to build a space base between the Earth and the Moon. Astronauts could use the base as a kind of halfway house or it could be used as a launchpad for new explorations elsewhere in the Solar System.

Source: Telegraph

You can fly a drone as long as you can see it

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has potentially restricted some of the more ambitious drone-based plans because of the regulator's new "line-of-sight rule", which requires drones to stay within their operators' sights.

Source: Digital Trends

Toronto Raptors are using IBM's Watson to search for players

To construct a team capable of winning the NBA, the Toronto Raptors has assembled one of the NBA’s leading analytics teams but the team has a new recruit: IBM’s Watson. The Raptors are the first NBA team to use Watson to analyse players.

Source: Motherboard

Is Russia working on teleportation?

A popular Russian paper has said that the country's national technological development programme should focus on developing a Star Trek-style teleportation device, and a workable model should be available by 2035.

Source: Huffington Post

Banks see the benefits of biometrics

Some of the nation’s largest banks are acknowledging that traditional passwords are either too cumbersome or no longer secure, and are increasingly using fingerprints, facial scans and other types of biometrics to safeguard accounts.

Source: New York Times

Solar Impulse completes groundbreaking solar-powered transatlantic crossing

Solar Impulse 2, the solar-powered plane capable of flying entirely without fuel, has landed in Seville, Spain, after successfully completing the first ever solar-powered transatlantic flight.

The journey, which was leg 15 of an unprecedented round-the-world trip for the aircraft, saw pilot, chairman and initiator Bertrand Piccard take 71 hours and 8 minutes to fly from New York’s JFK International Airport to Spain’s Seville Airport, arriving in the early hours of this morning at 05:38 UTC.

It is the first time a plane running only on solar power has ever completed the crossing, drawing comparisons with Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly non-stop across the Atlantic.

“The Atlantic has always been this symbol of going from the Old World to the New World, and everyone has tried to cross the Atlantic, with sailboats, steamboats, airships, aeroplanes, balloons, even rowing boats,” said Piccard on his arrival in Spain.

“Today it’s a solar-powered aeroplane for the first time ever; flying electric with no fuel and no pollution.”

Solar Impulse 2 after landing at Seville Airport, Spain. Images courtesy of Solar Impulse

Solar Impulse 2 after landing at Seville Airport, Spain. Images courtesy of Solar Impulse

Wearing an oxygen mask and protective clothing to help him survive the freezing temperatures and high altitudes, Piccard was able to take only short naps and remained awake for much of the three-day, 6,765km (4,203-mile) journey.

However, he was rewarded with some remarkable sights as he crossed the vast ocean, flying over whales, islands, icebergs and oil tankers.

He also took the time to take a Skype call with Virgin founder Richard Branson, who told him, “what you’re doing is extraordinary; it’s pioneering”.

The mission, which saw Solar Impulse begin its round-the-world attempt in Abu Dhabi in March 2015, is intended to promote the use and development of solar power by demonstrating what can be achieved with the technology.

The plane has the ability to fly almost perpetually thanks to its combination of solar panels and rechargeable batteries, a remarkable and apparently unprecedented achievement.

“Solar Impulse is a demonstration of energy efficiency and smart energy management, similar to a flying smart grid. Just imagine your energy reserves increasing during flight and available day after day!” explained André Borschberg, CEO, co-founder and alternate pilot.

“Initially the aviation industry told us it was impossible to build such an aeroplane, but we believed we could do it thanks to all our partners’ technologies. Last year we showed that it could fly almost perpetually, and now we confirmed it with the transatlantic flight, proving again that change is possible when we have the right mindset and are not afraid to push back our own limits.”

As Spider-Man’s next big event is revealed to be the Cloning Conspiracy, we take a look at the presence of cloning in comics and how it compares to real world efforts in the field

Marvel has been building towards a big Spider-Man event for a few months, under the name Dead No More. As the teasing has unfurled, certain iconically deceased characters from the Spiderman universe, including Gwen Stacy, have been returning from the dead.  Now however, it has been revealed that the true title of the event is The Clone Conspiracy, featuring the return of the villain known as the Jackal.

Spider-Man has a somewhat troubled history with cloning. Starting with the first Clone Saga in 1973, which saw the Jackal clone both Gwen Stacy and Spider-Man, things got truly absurd with the second Clone Saga in the ‘90s. The supposedly dead Jackal and Spider-Man clone, Ben Reilly, returned, and we proceeded to be subjected to around three years of confusing and needlessly complicated storylines that attempted to cast doubt on which Spider-Man was the real one.

Needless to say, there is a certain level of skepticism attached to the return of cloning in Spider-Man. However, the web-slinging hero is not alone in his encounters with clones, as the idea is widely present across the world of comics, with varying degrees of success. As the possibility of human cloning becomes ever more real in our own world, it’s hard not to wonder if we may see these fictions become reality.

Method behind the madness

Comics tend to take a somewhat fantastical approach to science. DC boasts more than one such clone as proof of this; perhaps most notable among their stable is Superboy. Created from a combination of Superman’s genetic material and a blood sample from Lex Luthor, he was then artificially aged to mid-teens and implanted with the necessary knowledge of someone of his biological age.

Marvel has a similar bevy of bizarre experiments but also happens to have a clone that actually, almost, approaches real science. X-23 is the young female clone of Wolverine, created following repeated failures to salvage the Y chromosome from a sample of Wolverine’s tissue. The team thus went on to create a female clone and one of the scientists acted as its surrogate mother.

In real life we have two forms of cloning: somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), the process used to create Dolly the Sheep, and induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSC), which are used to take a cellular approach to cloning.

Puppies cloned in the China-based "cloning factory". Image courtesy of the Boyalife Group

Puppies cloned in the China-based “cloning factory”. Image courtesy of the Boyalife Group

In essence, SCNT involves taking a cell from a donor, transplanting it into an egg cell from the host and fusing these cells together. Once they have fused, the new cell can then be grown either artificially or implanted to grow inside a surrogate.

IPSC, on the other hand, involves creating stem cells that have the potential to differentiate into any of the tissue types that make up the human body.

As we currently stand, human cloning is pretty much universally banned, with various degrees of restriction on the specifics in regards to stem cell research and so on. However, that does not mean the ability to clone humans is entirely beyond our reach.

The Boyalife Group, a Chinese biology company, claims that the only thing between them and human cloning is social perception. Dr Xu Xiaochun, the group chief executive, has said of cloning humans: “The technology is already there. If this is allowed, I don’t think there are other companies better than Boyalife that make better technology.”

The destination of a duplicate

The current business of cloning, outside of the research into stem cells, is involved in the creation of cloned animals. Boyalife is currently building the world’s largest cloning factory, aiming for an output of one million cloned cows every year by 2020. The factory is part of a partnership with the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, which is itself the world leader in commercial dog cloning, utilising the SCNT method.

The purposes of cloned animals are varied, from the desire for a certain pet or replica of a former pet to “disease models”, animals that are genetically designed to be susceptible to specific human diseases in order to research medicines. The aforementioned cows are being created in an attempt to alleviate the cost of beef in the Chinese market.

The possibilities of cloning are varied and promising, including the preservation of species with the hope of later regenerating them

The possibilities of cloning, in regards to animals at least, are varied and promising, including the preservation of species with the hope of later regenerating them.

The cloning of humans, on the other hand, is more questionable in its purpose. Proponents of human cloning argue perhaps most prominent that there are huge potential medical benefits and that the choice it lends to the question of reproduction is too important to restrict. The reproduction issue is one that is commonly raised, by those on both sides of the argument, with arguments around the morality of engineering a child.

Opponents of the idea raise concerns over how clones would fit into families and societies at large, whether they would be prone to abuse and whether or not it is acceptable for parents to essentially pre-program their child. On the other side, as explained by Simon Smith of the Human Cloning Foundation, it can mean “making our children live longer, helping them to be resistant to cancer, heart disease, any familial diseases, and all the other problems that can be cured using what we learn from human cloning technology.”

Of course, if we’ve learnt anything from cloning fiction, it’s that clones are rarely created with a noble purpose in mind.

Clones: Bred bad?

Clones are not destined to be bad. Many of them, within comics at least, end up as heroes. The problem is that, regardless of how heroic their end destination, they so often have to do so in defiance of their creator’s purpose. Clones are not to be trusted because they were created, rather than born. People may be capable of awful things but at least they’re not some science experiment, their motivations unknowable to any but their creator.


Image courtesy of Marvel

It’s a logic that isn’t quite in the heroic vein we may desire. But it’s tied into a greater transgression, one that seems to hit us on a very primal level and shows up in our most archetypal characters.  We don’t like it when people play God. All the way back to Frankenstein it’s been a subject designed to produce some level of moral flinch. That sense of the other is what we attach to clones, the notion that they look like us yet they are not us.

We place a lot of importance on life and death and so when Dan Slott, the current Spider-Man writer, starts tinkering, there’s an irrepressible shudder. For Slott, the cloning question seems to be treading closer to the notions of a form of immortality through replication.

“We live in a day and age of comics where you’re always seeing another important death,” he said. “‘Here’s someone who dies!’ We’re subverting all of that. Here’s people coming back.”

No doubt we will, at some point, be able to successfully create a human clone with the ease we do so with animals. Regardless of the method by which we do so, it will be important to remember that shudder. Take note true believers, nothing good will come of a conspiracy involving clones.