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Help Map the First Human Outpost on Mars

Mt. Sharp on Mars
Someday astronauts might navigate the Martian landscape (here, the Curiosity rover’s view of Mt. Sharp).

With the tantalizing possibility of a manned mission to Mars in the offing, NASA’s most recent call for astronaut hopefuls resulted in a record 18,300 applications. But if you missed the deadline (or have an aversion to spending seven to nine months in a cramped spacecraft with three other people), there’s another way to get involved: Make a map for astronauts to use on Mars.

Sure, NASA has plenty of scientists hard at work mapping the geology of potential Martian landing sites. But designing maps to help humans navigate, study, and survive in an alien landscape will require an entirely different set of skills—the kinds of skills that cartographers, graphic artists, and people who love maps might have.

So, the International Cartographic Association is holding a competition to come up with the best map design for astronauts who would spend about a year on the surface of Mars as part of a mission proposed for the 2030s.

One of the most interesting parts of this challenge is to design a map that will probably be displayed with technology that has yet to be invented. “The field maps will most likely be digital dynamic maps, shown on display, VR glasses, projected onto the helmet or made visible by a yet-to-discover technology,” according to the contest instructions.

“This project is on the boundary between scifi, game design, graphic arts and science, like cartography is,” NASA planetary scientist Henrik Hargitai told me in an email. Hargitai is also the chair of the ICA’s Commission on Planetary Cartography, which sounds awesome.

One of 47 possible exploration zones on Mars that could be visited by humans.
One of 47 possible exploration zones on Mars that could be visited by humans.
H. Hargitai/NASA/ARC

Competitors can use free mapping software with high-resolution surface images and information about geology and resources on Mars. They will choose one of 47 possible 200-kilometer-wide (about 125 miles) exploration zones—like the one to the left—and map everything that would be important to the astronauts, also known in NASA jargon as “proximal humans.” 

This includes things they need to live, like a habitat, power plant, and greenhouse; the places where they will conduct their research, such as geological outcrops and other spots that scientists have deemed worthy of inspection; areas that have resources they will need to survive, including water, loose rocks and dirt for building roads, and metals like iron and aluminum that could be mined; and landmarks for navigation.

Clearly this task will require some mapmaking skills. But more importantly, it’s going to take a lot of creativity to imagine what it would be like to live and work on the surface of another world. If you think you’re ready to do your part, here are a few ideas to help you put yourself in those astronauts’ Mars boots.

First, check out Curiosity’s view of the Red Planet. This rover has been cruising around Mars for almost four years, doing some of the kinds of things humans would also do out there—like drilling into rocks—and documenting it all with thousands of photographs, like as the one below. And the humans on Mars will also have some rovers with them, which makes Curiosity’s perspective even more relevant.

How Curiosity rover sees Mars.
How Curiosity rover sees Mars.

Next, you can study the experiences of the Apollo astronauts who walked on the moon. For example, this description from astronaut David Scott from the documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon” is revealing: “One of the problems on the moon is that there’s nothing of familiar size—no trees, houses, roads—so it’s very difficult to tell a large rock at a great distance from a smaller boulder nearby.”

After that, take a look in at NASA’s animated conception of a Mars exploration zone (which doesn’t look all that different from the outpost depicted in “The Martian”) in the video below.

And finally, consider immersing yourself in the stories of some of the great science fiction authors that take you to Mars and other planets, both real and imaginary. After all, some of these writers have a knack for actually predicting real future technology.

Hargitai says there’s a good chance that concepts and design elements from the contest submissions will be incorporated into the final product that lands in the hands (and helmets) of astronauts heading to Mars. For example, they need well-designed symbols for things like the deep space habitat that will be the astronauts’ living quarters. “We do hope that our awardees’ map designs will have an echo in the final products made some 20 years from now,” he says. And the maps can be tested much sooner on Earth in simulated Martian environments such as the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.

In addition to the chance to be involved in planning the first human mission to another planet, the contest offers prizes for the winners of three categories: middle and high school students, college students and young professionals aged 18-35, and “citizen scientists” of all ages. And, the winner’s maps will be sent to the scientists in charge of the exploration zone they mapped.

The ICA is currently in the process of making the competition an official collaboration with NASA through a NASA Space Act agreement. Hargitai hopes the project will follow in the crowdsourced footsteps of previous successful NASA citizen scientist projects like crater counting and Martian spider identification.

“The goal partly is to encourage young professionals and students, to inspire them, to work on science projects that may have a real impact,” Hargitai says. “They will be the future planetary scientists and astronauts.”

—Betsy Mason

8 thoughts on “Help Map the First Human Outpost on Mars

  1. Every time I see an article about humans going to Mars, I post my protest. There is absolutely zero reason to ever send humans to Mars.
    Our robotic missions are quite enough. The outrageous expense to send not only people, but enough food and water for them far outweighs the benefits that ordinary, or extra-ordinary robotic missions can achieve.
    For the cost of one human equipped Mars mission, probably five or more robotic missions could be sent simultaneously. Not to mention we will never in the future ever colonize it! The radiation alone makes it pointless. Extreme temperatures? it is just outlandish to think of ever sending people there for any reason what-so-ever.
    The one and only exception I make for it is, if they develop a method of propulsion that could get people there within weeks, rather than 150 days at the shortest, currently. Even if that were possible in the near future, only ultra wealthy could ever go, as it would never be cost effective for the common person.

    1. don’t you have a sense of adventure ??? that is one of humans most amazing attributes … we need to explore . it is pointless and bloody expensive to stand on the top of Everest … it is pointless and expensive to cross the polar regions , it is expensive to live and to dream …. why shouldn’t we want to see mankind succeed in a challenge like stepping onto mars .. ??
      robotics and computers can give us a taste of that adventure but actually seeing a human being stepping out of a lander and making the first footprints on another planet … WOW . that is something else .
      and as for cost … it would still be a danm sight cheaper than to fund yet another war !!!!

    2. There’s still at least a decade before anything like this happens, but any feasible Mars program involving human settlement will take food and water into account from the outset. Transporting water would be unnecessary – there is water (frozen) on Mars. This means you would have more room in a cargo ship for other essentials. Once we can figure out how to grow food on Mars, then the cost per mission could be reduced even further.

    3. If we never colonize Mars, we’ll never colonize anywhere. Mars is the easiest spot in our solar system to colonize. We will eventually colonize Mars and even eventually terraform it to give it back a stable atmosphere in a few hundred years.

      Humans can do far more than robots can. One human is easily worth 6 robots. They can improvise, change actions in a heartbeat, instantly examine something out of place, etc.

  2. China,

    Just to bring the above a little more in line with logic – If humans are not going, “there is absolutely zero reason to ever send” robots to Mars.

    The only rational reason to spend billions of dollars on robotic missions to Mars is as precursors to human settlement. So unless your idle curiosity goads you into paying for the robotic mission out of your own pocket- no humans means no need for robots.

    We already know how to ameliorate the radiation and temperature issues, and you would have to be quite daft to think that we won’t be far better at it by the time we go there in ten to twenty years.

    As for the travel times, sarc/ yeah, there were absolutely no human beings outside of Africa until the invention of the steam engine made it possible to travel to Europe, Asia, and the Americas within weeks /sarc

    Look, if you are fearful about crawling out of the cradle, and can’t imagine living in any situation that isn’t coddled and made safe to ten decimal places… just stay in the cradle. There is no need to throw a tantrum when someone else decides to crawl out and walk away.

  3. @China Mike, well, here are some reasons: statistical modeling of social processes hints at following: groups that stay contained in the same environment tend to become homogeneous with respect to the tested quality. Put differently, if you have a group of people (no matter the size, but think larger groups s.a. entire countries), then, eventually, they will stop their own development by eliminating the differences between them.
    This can be mitigated by branching out and creating new poorly connected / properly fended communities, which develop their own optimized version of the same property.
    Earth, eventually, will run out of space for this kind of branching, since, well, it has finite space for that. Establishing a colony elsewhere will mitigate this risk.

    To give you a more concrete example: early days of American colonization by Europeans promoted dissidence in Europeans. It opened an opportunity for people who weren’t content with the state of affairs in their homeland to try something new elsewhere.

    This is a more long-term goal, but still seems to be worth the effort for me.

  4. The techniques and technology needed to be on Mars for any length of time are the same ones we need to develop for living here on Earth with sustainability in mind. We’ll need to develop a completely independent sustainable colony on Mars that can generate energy, produce food locally, keep water clean, build without polluting the environment, recycle everything, and create zero waste while doing so. These are all things we desperately need here on Earth if we are to survive the next century and beyond.
    We will not be shipping oil, Pepsi, and Cheetos to Mars. We’ll need to change how we think and live our lives and stop being destructive spoiled brats. Once it’s seen on Mars as not only possible but logical we will adopt these techniques here. Why pay so much for water and utilities here if they can generate their own on a dead planet? Think of the paradigm shift in our culture that a sustainable colony on Mars would be for people here. We’re not going to Mars as just some chest thumping “we did that” moment. We need to go there to learn what an incredible planet we have here and how to save it. That change in mindset is worth any expense

  5. We’ve GOT to go to Mars, as the first step to going much further. We will have to find somewhere else to live, and colonise outwards, because our dear Earth and our life-giving Sun are not going to last for ever.

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