After the Game, Roll Out a Planet

A heavy-duty vinyl map the size of a basketball court.

The deep blue egg
The deep blue egg is an ancient impact crater; court markings are overlaid on the photo to show dimensions.

People in Arizona have been strolling on Mars. At Arizona State University’s open house last February, about 700 people toured the Red Planet—stocking feet only—walking around Olympus Mons, the solar system’s tallest mountain, and across Gale and Gusev craters, landing sites for NASA Mars rovers. The features were on a vinyl mat, 95 feet long and 47.5 feet wide—the size of a standard basketball court. “It’s the entire planet, pole to pole,” says ASU research specialist Jonathon Hill, who chose those dimensions because most schools have a basketball court or a similar-sized space. The map is a mosaic of 24,000 high-resolution images from the Thermal Emission Imaging System, or THEMIS, an instrument on the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which has been orbiting Mars since 2001.

Hill is also a THEMIS mission planner, the guy who plans the instrument’s observations. For the past three years, he has been replacing images that were made in the early years of the Mars Odyssey mission with newer, higher-resolution images. As he was stitching the images together into a mosaic, he thought, “How do you communicate this great new data?” Inspired by the National Geographic Society’s Giant Maps program, which sells classroom-size maps of states and continents, Hill contacted the company Kubin-Nicholson in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—“printers of the humongous,” as the company labels itself—and ordered a six-piece, 230-pound vinyl map of Mars. The map’s color is drawn from elevation data collected by the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), which flew on a previous Mars mission. The altimeter transmitted infrared laser pulses to the planet as it orbited and measured the time of each pulse’s return, creating a precise topographic map of the surface.

scavenger hunt at SS Simon and Jude School
On a scavenger hunt at SS Simon and Jude School in Phoenix, students located the landing site of the Soviet 1971 Mars 3 lander.

Would you like to have a map of Mars for your school? Hill can help. He’s hoping that the map will find its way to many schools on this planet. It costs $5,000 (shipping not included). But for anyone who can raise the funds, Hill says he would be glad to advise on getting the map made.

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This story is a selection from the June/July issue of Air & Space magazine

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