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Someday astronauts might navigate the Martian landscape (here, the Curiosity rover’s view of Mt. Sharp). NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Help Map the First Human Outpost on Mars

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.

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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.

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How Curiosity rover sees Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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