Explore Mars with GIS!

2 weeks ago
Esri Frequent Contributor
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With perfect timing for the 18 February 2021 landing of the Perseverance Rover on Mars, you and your students can explore the Red Planet with powerful yet easy to use 2D and 3D mapping tools powered by ArcGIS from Esri.

Explore Mars is a 3D mapping and exploration tool where you can investigate landforms on Mars, including the landing sites of all previous and current rovers, craters, volcanoes, plains, and more.   The tool is based on the ArcGIS API from Esri and runs completely in a browser with nothing to install and nothing to log into. Measure tools allow you to easily create 3D profiles and measure height, length, area, and depth (see image below, for example).  First use these measure tools to measure the diameter of the entire planet.  How does it compare to Earth's diameter?  Next, use the tools to measure the size of the Jetzero Crater, where Perseverance landed, the cliff escarpment leading up to the shield of the Olympus Mons volcano, or any other feature.  How does the Olympus Mons escarpment compare to the escarpment at Niagara Falls, or the north face of K2 in the Himalayas? 

Scale sometimes is a concept that is challenging to help students understand.  Mars may be smaller than Earth but does include some mighty big features, some of which are the largest in the solar system.  So, compare the size of the country or USA state of your choice to by placing countries and states "on top of" Mars.  Try it with Olympus Mons--it is as big as New York State!  Next, place the Grand Canyon or Mt Everest on, for example, the amazingly deep and wide Valles Marineris.  Compare width and depths of features on Earth vs. other features you drop them onto on Mars.   This Mars 3D viewer can be used to teach topics such as scale, regions, and more, in geography, technology, mathematics, astronomy, and other classes, from primary to university level.  For more, read this essay from my Esri colleagues and see it in action via my video.


I am proud to have worked at the USGS for many years, and my colleagues there created this geologic map of the Jezero Crater and the Nili Planum region on Mars, around which they have wrapped interactive mapping tools, so you can use it as well to teach with and learn from, here.   For more layers to examine, examine this  article Explore Mars with GIS from my Esri colleague and this amazing story map.  

You may have noticed latitude and longitude values in the above 3D Mars mapping tool as you were exploring.  How are these values determined on non-Earth planetary bodies?  That is one subject that the International Cartographic Association Commission on Planetary Cartography deals with, along with many others, here.  Ask your students:  Why is there no 'east and west' longitudes on Mars?  Unlike on Earth, the longitude values increase from 0 to 360 on Mars.  Where is the Prime Meridian on Mars and how was it determined?  Read this to find out.

The USGS planetary mapping group out of Flagstaff Arizona have been mapping the Moon, Mars, Io, Ganymede, Mercury, the Sun, and other celestial objects for a long time, that you can examine via searching the USGS online store.  One of my colleagues placed some tiles and maps in ArcGIS Online, here and shown below. Where are the largest 3 craters and the deepest 3 craters on Mars?  Sorting the table of data, zooming to each, and using the measure tools build students' GIS and investigative skills.  These are the same tools and skills that they use for Earth observations and thus are easily transferred to Mars investigations.  How do these craters compare to the shape and size of Meteor Crater Arizona? 


Additional questions to pose:  Give the students a list of, say, 3 latitude-longitude coordinates.  Of these 3 locations, which would be the best location for the new Rover based on a small set of criteria, such as slope (flat), no ice, and no sand?   Then show them the landing site for the 2021 mission, the one eventually determined to be optimal:  https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/mission/science/landing-site/.

Investigate these ancient oases on Mars by reading this article https://www.usgs.gov/news/new-usgs-maps-mars-reveal-ancient-oases - and then using this map:  https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/sim3359 and the 2D and 3D mapping tools described above.

Enjoy teaching and learning with these amazing tools, but warning!  -- they are addictive and make wonderful tools for teaching and learning!  My favorite area on Mars?  Check out the convoluted set of canyons intersecting at right angles at the east end of the Valles Marineris.   Fascinating!

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About the Author
I believe that spatial thinking can transform education and society through the application of Geographic Information Systems for instruction, research, administration, and policy. I hold 3 degrees in Geography, have served at NOAA, the US Census Bureau, and USGS as a cartographer and geographer, and teach a variety of F2F (Face to Face) (including T3G) and online courses. I have authored a variety of books and textbooks about the environment, STEM, GIS, and education. These include "Interpreting Our World", "Essentials of the Environment", "Tribal GIS", "The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data", "International Perspectives on Teaching and Learning with GIS In Secondary Education", "Spatial Mathematics" and others. I write for 2 blogs, 2 monthly podcasts, and a variety of journals, and have created over 5,000 videos on the Our Earth YouTube channel. Yet, as time passes, the more I realize my own limitations and that this is a lifelong learning endeavor and thus I actively seek mentors and collaborators.