Mapping the past, projecting the future – With Philip Stooke

I remember well how I got in touch for the first time with Phil Stooke. It was 4 years ago.


On those days I had revived my interest for space exploration and was clinging to every site and forum dealing with the MER mission. It was in the days when the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit was negotiating the climbing of Husband Hill and,, in a certain forum, I was trying to figure what we were seeing on the ground when compared with orbital imagery and seeking a path that would take us to the other side of the story…Those who know me from these adventures are well aware of my poor sense of orientation.

Someone corrected me then, stubborn as I am, didn’t take his opinion that serious until someone alerted me to the fact: “Do you know who that is? That’s Phil Stooke!” to whom I’ve answered, from the pedestal of my ignorance…: “Phil Who?”.


Years have passed and Phil and I, nowadays, gather around the same bonfire, the one lighten up by Doug Ellison with the creation of the incomparable Unmannedspaceflight forum.


Who would say back in 2005 we would still be here after all this time and that I would be defying Phil to join the Beyond the Cradle crew and that he would accept the invitation?


I know I wouldn’t…It is with great pleasure and with a mix of nostalgia and emotion that I welcome Phil aboard.



Phil Stooke is a planetary cartographer at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada.  He works in the Department of Geography and is also affiliated with the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration. His Ph. D. research at the University of Victoria involved mapping asteroids, work which included designing map projections and shape modelling methods for irregularly shaped small bodies. More recently he has worked on locating spacecraft on the Moon and Mars, and has compiled a historical atlas, The International Atlas of Lunar Exploration. This book uses maps and images to provide a uniquely detailed history of the exploration of the Moon.

He is now working on a similar atlas of Mars exploration.



ps_01People may say that lunar and planetary exploration has been described in more than enough detail already, but this is not true of many aspects of exploration. In the case of the Moon, for instance, nobody had published the full panoramic images taken by the Surveyor spacecraft before they appeared in my book. Nobody had followed the step by step process of selecting landing sites for Ranger, Surveyor and Apollo before, or where they had been described in part, the process had not been illustrated. No book had included maps showing areas imaged by Soviet lunar orbiters. Many things like these had not been done before, and others had been described only in obscure sources, technical reports or committee minutes which most people would never see.


My job for the Moon atlas was to collect everything I could find from these obscure sources and put it all together in a common format to make one convenient reference book. Now I am doing the same for Mars.  What new things will appear in this atlas that are not already familiar? Let’s start with the early missions. I am now mapping the extent of imaging from the early flyby and orbital missions, from Mariner 4 to Mars 5. That’s been done before, but often only in a rough way. For instance, I have projected Mariner 4’s first image onto a modern map to show that surface features are visible. When it was made, people could not recognize the surface markings seen in that historic image, the first ever taken by a spacecraft close to Mars, so they interpreted them as clouds. They are not – many surface markings are visible, and locating them on a modern map also reveals that the contemporary maps of Mariner 4 photo coverage were wrong. They all place the first image too far north on the planet.



Images of Mars taken by the Soviet Union’s Mars 4 spacecraft in 1974. The background map is from Mariner 9 data.


Then there is the question of landing site selection for Viking, the heroic orbiter and lander mission of the mid-1970s. The landing site selection process is described in a NASA history study called ‘On Mars’, but many steps are glossed over. One example is a set of 35 sites chosen from early Mariner 9 images for more detailed study later in the mission. They formed the original list from which Viking sites were eventually chosen. The NASA history says this was done but does not identify the sites. I am going back to the original records of the meetings which made the selections, and describing and illustrating every step, as I did for Apollo in the lunar atlas. That process will be repeated for every mission up to the present, including many that never flew.


In the process a lot of unique new maps will be created. One example is a map of Mars made from Mariner 6 and 7 images taken in 1969. Another is a series of maps illustrating the Soviet Union’s Mars 2, 3 and 6 landing or crash sites from the years before Viking. The maps ‘zoom in’ on the sites from a broad regional scale to a close view in the most up to date spacecraft images. All landing sites will be identified and characterized in that way, giving the most complete record available anywhere of the exploration of the red planet.



Images of the south pole of Mars taken in 1969 by the U.S. spacecraft Mariner 7.


Sometimes, what was missing seems so obvious that people are surprised to find it was not done. Did you ever see a photomosaic map of the Viking sampler arm operations? Only rough sketches were made, showing trenches dug by the arm but not most of the rocks or other features. In fairness, though, some of these things are easier to do today than they were in the 1970s, with modern software and access to data. An example of that is a recent project of mine to project a Viking 1 panorama onto the surface revealed in a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter high resolution image. The new MRO image provides proper control of feature positions, making accurate mapping of the site possible for the first time.


So history is not all laid out for us already! Some of it is still to be found – or still to be made – in archives, old images and old reports.

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