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“Best-ever” Mars map online; public invited to work on it

July 24, 2010
Courtesy of Arizona State University
and World Science staff

What re­search­ers call the best Mars map ev­er made is now avail­a­ble on­line for plan­e­tary sci­en­tists and arm­chair as­tro­nauts alike. And mem­bers of the pub­lic are in­vit­ed to help make it even bet­ter.

Web­sites de­vel­oped re­cently at Ar­i­zo­na State Uni­vers­ity's Mars Space Flight Facil­ity, with NASA, the Je­t Pro­pul­sion Lab­o­r­a­to­ry, and Mi­crosoft, make it easy for an­y­one to trek the craters, vol­ca­noes, and dusty plains of Earth's small red neigh­bor.

Valles Marineris, the "Grand Can­yon of Mars," sprawls wide enough to reach from Los An­ge­les nearly to New York City, if it were on Earth. (The red box frames the area shown on the World Sci­ence home­page im­age.) (Credits: NASA/JPL/ASU)


“We've as­sem­bled the best glob­al map of Mars to date,” said Phil­ip Chris­tensen, a ge­ol­o­gist at the uni­vers­ity. “We made it avail­a­ble via the In­ter­net so ev­eryone can help make it bet­ter.”

The map pre­s­ents it­self on the site as one rec­tan­gu­lar, black-and-white, in­ter­ac­tive, zoom­able glob­al im­age, the ver­sion eas­i­est for most view­ers to use. While the large-scale pic­ture ap­pears rath­er un­re­mark­a­ble and lack­ing in de­tails, zoom­ing in re­veals a wealth of fas­ci­nat­ing fea­tures.

Ad­vanced users with large band­width, pow­er­ful com­put­ers, and soph­is­t­icated soft­ware ca­pa­ble of han­dling gi­ga­byte im­ages, can down­load the map in sec­tions at full res­o­lu­tion.

The maps show Mars as if sliced from the sur­face of a globe, un­wrapped, and flat­tened out on a ta­ble. Nearly 21,000 in­di­vid­ual im­ages have been smoothed, blend­ed, fit­ted to­geth­er, and car­to­graph­ic­ally con­trolled to make a gi­ant mo­sa­ic that Web view­ers can zoom in­to and scroll around. The few mis­sing pieces show where clouds and poor light­ing have thus far pre­vented map-qual­ity im­ag­ing; these places are high on mis­sion plan­ners' must-im­age tar­get list.

“Por­tions of Mars have been mapped at high­er res­o­lu­tion,” said Chris­tensen, “but this is the most de­tailed map so far that co­vers the plan­et.”

All the map im­ages come from the Ther­mal Emis­sion Im­ag­ing Sys­tem, an in­fra­red and op­ti­cal cam­era on NASA's Mars Od­ys­sey or­biter. The small­est sur­face de­tails vis­i­ble when you zoom all the way in are 100 me­ters, or 330 feet, wide.

The map has been in the mak­ing since the cam­er­a’s ob­serva­t­ions be­gan eight years ago. It lays a frame­work for glob­al stud­ies of prop­er­ties such as the min­er­al com­po­si­tion and phys­i­cal na­ture of the sur­face ma­te­ri­als. In ad­di­tion, it is help­ing NASA mis­sion plan­ners choose tar­gets for aim­ing in­stru­ments on the Mars Re­con­nais­sance Or­biter. The map al­so plays a role in eval­u­at­ing po­ten­tial land­ing sites for NASA's next Mars rov­er, the Mars Sci­ence Lab­o­r­a­to­ry, due for launch late next year.

The map could benefit from further improvement, its makers say. “Computer-made maps have gone about as far as they can,” said Chris­tensen. “Now it's the turn for cit­i­zen sci­en­tists… with the help of peo­ple from around the world, we can in­crease the ac­cu­ra­cy of the glob­al Mars map.”

NASA's “Be A Mar­tian” web­site, de­vel­oped in coop­era­t­ion with Mi­crosoft, of­fers a way for would-be Mars map­pers to do ex­actly that. Ar­i­zo­na State reg­u­larly con­tri­butes new im­ages to a page on this site called the “Map Room,” where the pub­lic can help by hand-aligning new im­ages, plac­ing them with­in a pix­el’s ac­cu­ra­cy.

The ori­gins of the new glob­al map lie in the work of pre­vi­ous Mars mis­sions, which be­gan im­ag­ing the Red Plan­et dec­ades ago. Two new web­sites de­vel­oped at Ar­i­zo­na State pro­vide a wide win­dow in­to the gi­gantic col­lec­tion of im­ages tak­en by ear­li­er Mars mis­sions.

“These web­sites pre­s­ent all the im­ages tak­en by cam­er­as aboard Mars-or­biting space probes, start­ing with Vi­king in 1976,” Chris­tensen ex­plained. “The im­age col­lec­tion, reg­u­larly up­dat­ed, al­so in­cludes those from cur­rent mis­sions, such as Eu­rope's Mars Ex­press, and NASA's Mars Od­ys­sey and Mars Re­con­nais­sance Or­biter.”

The new Mars Im­age Ex­plor­er, he said, lets view­ers find im­ages in ei­ther of two ways. View­ers can click on a map of Mars — or they can spec­i­fy var­i­ous key prop­er­ties such as lat­i­tude and lon­gi­tude, space­craft or­bit num­ber, date, or view­ing con­di­tions. View­ers can check out the Ex­plor­er by se­lect­ing key prop­er­ties or by click­ing on a mis­sion-specific Mars map.

The broad pur­pose un­der­ly­ing all these sites is mak­ing Mars ex­plora­t­ion easy and en­gag­ing for ev­eryone, said Chris­tensen. “We're try­ing to cre­ate a user-friendly in­ter­face be­tween the pub­lic and NASA's Plan­etary Da­ta Sys­tem, which does a ter­rif­ic job of col­lect­ing, val­i­dat­ing, and archiv­ing da­ta. Our fo­cus lies in pro­vid­ing easy ac­cess to Mars im­ages for the gen­er­al pub­lic and sci­en­tists alike.”

* * *

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What researchers call the best Mars map ever made is now available online for planetary scientists and armchair astronauts alike. And members of the public are invited to help make it even better. Websites developed recently at Arizona State University's Mars Space Flight Facility, in collaboration with NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Microsoft, make it easy for anyone to trek the craters, volcanoes, and dusty plains of Earth's small red neighbor world. "We've assembled the best global map of Mars to date," says Philip Christensen, a geologist at the university. "We made it available via the Internet so everyone can help make it better." The map presents itself on the site as a single, rectangular, black-and-white, interactive zoomable global image, the version easiest for most viewers to use. While the large-scale picture appears rather unremarkable and lacking in details, zooming in reveals a wealth of fascinating features. Advanced users with large bandwidth, powerful computers, and sophisticated software capable of handling gigabyte images, can download the map in sections at full resolution. The maps show Mars as if sliced from the surface of a globe, unwrapped, and flattened out on a table. Nearly 21,000 individual images have been smoothed, blended, fitted together, and cartographically controlled to make a giant mosaic that Web viewers can zoom into and scroll around. The few missing pieces show where clouds and poor lighting have thus far prevented map-quality imaging; these places are high on mission planners' must-image target list. "Portions of Mars have been mapped at higher resolution," says Christensen, "but this is the most detailed map so far that covers the planet." All the map images come from the Thermal Emission Imaging System, an infrared and optical camera on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. The smallest surface details visible when you zoom all the way in are 100 meters, or 330 feet, wide. The map has been in the making since the camera’s observations began eight years ago. "We tied the images to the cartographic control grid provided by the U.S. Geological Survey,” which also modeled the camera's optics, says Christensen, who is the principal investigator for the system. "This let us remove instrument distortion, so features on the ground are correctly located to within a few pixels." The new map lays the framework for global studies of properties such as the mineral composition and physical nature of the surface materials. In addition, it is helping NASA mission planners choose targets for aiming instruments on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The map also plays a role in evaluating potential landing sites for NASA's next Mars rover, the Mars Science Laboratory, due for launch in late 2011. But every map, however good, can still be improved and this is no exception. "Computer-made maps have gone about as far as they can," says Christensen. "Now it's the turn for citizen scientists… with the help of people from around the world, we can increase the accuracy of the global Mars map." NASA's "Be A Martian" website, developed in cooperation with Microsoft, offers a way for would-be Mars mappers to do exactly this. Arizona State regularly contributes new images to a page on this site called the "Map Room," where the public can help by hand-aligning new images, placing them within a pixel’s accuracy. The origins of the new global map lie in the work of previous Mars missions, which began imaging the Red Planet decades ago. Two new websites developed at Arizona State provide a wide window into the gigantic collection of images taken by earlier Mars missions. "These websites present all the images taken by cameras aboard Mars-orbiting space probes, starting with Viking in 1976,” Christensen explained. “The image collection, regularly updated, also includes those from current missions, such as Europe's Mars Express, and NASA's Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter." The new Mars Image Explorer, he says, lets viewers find images in either of two ways. Viewers can click on a map of Mars — or they can specifying various key properties such as latitude and longitude, spacecraft orbit number, date, or viewing conditions. Viewers can check out the Explorer by selecting key properties or by clicking on a mission-specific Mars map. The broad purpose underlying all these sites is making Mars exploration easy and engaging for everyone, said Christensen. "We're trying to create a user-friendly interface between the public and NASA's Planetary Data System, which does a terrific job of collecting, validating, and archiving data. Our focus lies in providing easy access to Mars images for the general public and scientists alike."