Using GIS in Space Exploration

Mark Altaweel


While we generally think of GIS applied to objects or systems on Earth, GIS has been of great utility for space exploration. Some of the best-known applications include surface maps created by NASA’s Mars Odyssey mission, where, among other accomplishments, the THEMIS camera system has been applied to create a detailed geoid of the planet. These results have been studied to understand Mars’ surface and for understanding geophysical properties such as past presence of tectonic activity and geologic structure in general.[1]

Example GIS tools that exist for Mars exploration include JMARS developed by Arizona State University.[2] Other uses of GIS for space exploration include dynamic maps of the universe that can be adjusted or modified based on astronomical projections or sensory data from satellites and telescopes.[3]

Screenshot from JMARS.
Screenshot from JMARS.

Mapping of the universe, in fact, has become a key area for astronomers. Traditionally, this included using microwaves to collect data about the universe. Now, new technologies such as low-frequency radio interferometer give the potential to map much larger areas. These new technologies allow a more detailed 3D mapping to be possible, opening up the possibility that GIS can be more fully used with new maps of larger areas of the universe.[4]  While mapping the entire universe still seems a long way away, these new imaging technologies along with the use of more antennas on space systems and new signaling capacity mean that we can more realistically create 3D maps that also allow real-time monitoring of space events. This includes now mapping events such as the origin of pulsars or projection of black holes. Deep space is, perhaps, truly one of these final frontiers for GIS to be applied to.


[1] For a detailed representation of Mars’ geology and maps, see:  Tanaka, K.L., Skinner, J.A., Jr., Dohm, J.M., Irwin, R.P., III, Kolb, E.J., Fortezzo, C.M., Platz, T., Michael, G.G., and Hare, T.M., 2014, Geologic map of Mars: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Map 3292, scale 1:20,000,000, pamphlet 43 p.,

[2] For more information on the JMARS system and examples, see:  Edwards, C. S., P. R. Christensen, and J. Hill. (2011), Mosaicking of global planetary image datasets: 2. Modeling of wind streak thicknesses observed in Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) daytime and nighttime infrared data, J. Geophys. Res10.1029/2011JE003857.

[3] For more information on mapping parts of the universe, see:  Chen, Chaomei. 2013. “Mapping the Universe.” In Mapping Scientific Frontiers, by Chaomei Chen, 47–84. London: Springer London.

[4] For more information on using interferometer for mapping, see:  Zheng, Haoxuan, Max Tegmark, Victor Buza, Josh Dillon, Hrant Gharibyan, Jack Hickish, Eben Kunz, et al. 2013. “Mapping Our Universe in 3D with MITEoR.” In , 784–91. IEEE. doi:10.1109/ARRAY.2013.6731928.

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

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