(Is there) Life on Mars?

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Why We Love It

Travel to Mars. Discover its craters and volcanoes. See all the places humans have touched through space missions and astronomical observations. Click to reveal details of landings (or crashes). Use the map legend to irrigate the planet and see how it might look if water were indeed to create oceans and lakes on Mars. We love how this map paints a picture of Mars and all that we, as a species, have done to explore that far away fiery red planet.

Why It Works

Maps provide a window to places we might never see with our own eyes. They show us far off lands, exciting us with imagery and detail. This map works because it takes elevation data from USGS and reinterprets it in a way that captures the drama of the Mars landscape. It invites us to explore and, through pop-ups, reveals information about features and human history. The map entertains our curiosity as well—what would it be like if there was water (and then life) on Mars?

Important Steps

The map is based on 463 m resolution MOLA elevation data freely available via USGS Astrogeology Science Center, updated in January 2014.

Data was projected using the Mars 2000 Cylindrical projection. The orange/plum color is a metaphor for the red planet, with deeper tones for areas below the Martian areoid (vertical datum) and lighter yellows extending to the highest peaks.

ArcGIS Terrain Tools were used to build a dramatic sky modeled hillshade with 255 points of illumination. A cluster hillshade picks out steep slopes and illuminated contours represent abstract terrain.

Abstract crater symbols, displayed with 70% transparency and sized proportional to the feature, reveal landscape details. Graphics mark the location of spacecraft landings (and crashes), as a link to detail in the pop-up.

The nomenclature database of the International Astronomical Union was used to label the planet’s 1,800+ features. Linear features were digitized and attributed. The ArcGIS Maplex Label Engine was used to label the map with Garamond and Helvetica Neue.

Water layers let you see Mars with lakes and oceans using transparent bathymetric layers. The ocean is colored green because of Mars’ atmosphere and lighting. There’s also a hidden Easter Egg on the map…go hunt for it!



We used elevation data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter instrument on the MGS (NASA/JPL/GSF) at approximately 463m/px, official IAU/USGS nomenclature from the MRCTR GIS lab, and landing site data from NASA.


Analytical tools allow us to process digital elevation models for cartographic purposes. Terrain tools allowed the creation of various terrain representations and, combined with the elevation tinting, made the basemap. Labeling required manual digitizing of linear features to act as positional anchors.


Processing various terrain representations took several hours for each tool to run on the data which was in excess of 46,000 by 20,000 pixels in size. Labelling took a day to digitize the features as lines and then attribute. Water layers took another couple of days to extract and symbolize. Building the tile packages to publish online, another day or so accounting for user error and reworking. In total this map took about two weeks.

Use Transparency


Use transparency to add subtle cartographic effects such as halos on labels to allow them to be legible across colorful basemaps, or on thematic overlays to diminish the visibility of symbology.

Combine Different Terrain


Combine different terrain effects to create a whole for the final map. Most maps use combinations of effects to give their terrain character. This map uses four.

User Simple Web Map


Use simple web map viewers to make the map the focus. Try to limit clutter on and around the map.

Maps Can Be Fun


Maps can be fun! Despite the intent of the map to act as a portal to information about Mars, the addition of water layers and the Easter Egg give people additional interactions and reasons to explore.

More Information


2016 Highly Commended: Avenza award for electronic mapping

Map Author

Ken Field

Ken Field

@kennethfield | LinkedIn

Professional carto-nerd, amateur drummer and snowboarder. High quality, innovative, and sometimes a little crazy cartography in modern maps.

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