Using GIS to Explore Mars

Mark Altaweel


Maps are powerful ways for us to appreciate our world. While this is the case on Earth, what about other planets? Recently, the Perseverance rover has landed on Mars, with one of its primary goals being determining life on the planet.[1] 

Recently, Esri has created the “Explore Mars!” site. Similar to well-known applications such as Google Earth, Esri’s Explore Mars site allows you to explore the surface of Mars and make some basic geospatial measurements, including a developed planetary coordinate system and a tool to compare area to known locations such as states or countries.[2] 

On the site, there are also visualizations of previous landing probe sites. For previous rovers, you can explore the paths they have taken and see what they have explored in terms of the surface imagery. You can also measure elevation profiles to get a sense of the terrain.

Screenshot of Esri's recently launched Explore Mars! site.
Screenshot of Esri’s recently launched Explore Mars! site.

Tools also include objects that can be compared to the site, such as iconic buildings to get a sense of elevation of major features. All of these can be shared on social media via Twitter using a link to this on the site. Esri has also made effort to create a site on the history of Mars and its exploration, beginning from early observations from societies to recent exploration.

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The site mostly allows you to access data within the site, focusing on an online exploratory platform. In the future, data, such as on the geology of underlying rocks, including evidence for water and other life-giving resources, could be included as part of the shared data.[3]

Screenshot of Mars from Esri's Explore Mars! site.
The Esri Explore Mars! lets you access GIS data about the planet.

The new Esri site recalls a similar effort by Google, where Google Earth could be used to explore Mars in a similar way to the popular Google Earth tool. Google has also created a site that allows you to explore more about the Curiosity rover’s earlier exploration of Mars using a WebVR site.[4] 

The site uses Curiosity’s pictures of the surface to create a 3D visual experience of the surface. Information about the landing, maps of areas explored,  and various facts about Mars and the rover can be found.

Other mapping efforts related to Mars have existed, including one supported by Arizona State University[5] and the Europlanet Cesium Planetary Globe Viewer. These tools provide data and visual analysis of Mars that can also be downloaded and used in geospatial analysis.

WebVR site for Mars by Google.
WebVR site for Mars by Google.

The Cesium tool attempts to share data online as an online GIS data sharing hub. For planetary geographers, users may want to also explore different cartographic data cataloged.

Data such as digital elevation models and orthophotos can be downloaded from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), providing some information on the geography and geology of Mars. There is also an FTP server providing different data layers for Mars.[6]

Undoubtedly, new data will be available not only from the Perseverance rover but potentially also from other exploration attempts in the coming years. These data will be increasingly placed online and explored using Cloud-based tools in most cases, given the vast quantities of data and convenience of the methods.

As to other missions beyond Perseverance, no other projects are currently planned. In part, this could be because results from this current exploration may determine how scientists and policy-makers at NASA choose to proceed.

The big question that might have to be addressed is when and if we launch a mission with human explorers or even colonists. If there are decisions to further explore or even colonize Mars, GIS will be critical to planing, as geological and surface data will need to be used to determine future landing sites and potential places to build any station.

For now, we have increasing data made available to us on several sites, with Google Earth-like navigation and tools that can be used to explore existing data. Such data will likely mostly appeal to a narrow range of scientists or those who are curious, but this nascent development in planetary GIS could demonstrate the beginnings of compiling spatial data for planets outside of our own.

There are a few dedicated sites to discussing planetary spatial data as well as those that share some data, but these are stilll minor sites based on use. However, as more probes are sent to Mars and other planets, the potential for greater use and analysis in planetary GIS is likely to increase, although for what purpose, outside of exploratory science, remains to be seen.


[1]    For more on the goals of the Perseverance rover, see:

[2]    For more on Esri’s Mars planetary explorer too, see: Additionally, the tool can be see here:

[3]    The Mars explanation site can be found here:

[4]    The WebVR site for Mars by Google can be found here:

[5]    The Arizona State University site can be found here: The Cesium viewer is found here:

[6]    The USGS site for planetary data, called Astropedia, can be found here: The FTP site can be found here:


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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.