Martian atlas maps what we know about the Red Planet … so far

For this self-described ‘Child of Apollo,’ there was no question where he would land one day.

Philip Stooke vividly remembers the impression left on him as a teenage boy watching Apollo astronauts walk on the moon. Stooke, a Western planetary cartographer, would continue that interest in the extraterrestrial – first a hobby, now as a career.

That career hit a major milepost last week as Stooke launched his latest project, The International Atlas of Mars Exploration – The First Five Decades: 1953 to 2003. Hailed as a comprehensive reference on Mars exploration, the atlas – volume one of a two-volume set – tells the story of every spacecraft mission to Mars since the dawn of the Space Age, illustrating each account with a unique combination of maps and annotated photographs.

Stooke, a member of Western’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration, previously released The International Atlas of Lunar Exploration. Both atlases, as well as his forthcoming The International Atlas of Mars Exploration – Spirit to Curiosity: 2004 to 2014, were published by Cambridge University Press.

His work follows in the great tradition of explorers who, admittedly, may have had their feet (and ambitions) planted a little more firmly on the terra firma.

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“It’s not unlike an atlas of Canadian Arctic exploration with detailed maps of all the explorers’ routes, what they did at each stop, reproductions of the maps they used, and so on,” said Stooke, a professor cross-appointed in Geography and Physics & Astronomy. “This kind of representation has never been done before.”

Following the same successful pattern as his moon book, Stooke set out to bring clarity to Mars’ body of knowledge – collecting diffused facts between the same covers.

“There’s lots of information out there, but it’s scattered all over the place. What I wanted to do was bring it all together in one convenient reference work,” he said.

While researching the moon book, Stooke found himself buried in obscure archives and libraries, pulling out little-seen (or never-seen) information. Researching the Mars book, while requiring the same amount of digging, was not the same chore as the important findings came during the Computer Age. That allowed for more time in front of the computer, rather than digging through boxes of forgotten paper files.

While little he discovered surprised him, although much of what he unearthed is never-before seen by most people, he was able to “solve some puzzles” regarding the Red Planet.

For example, he likes to reference a 1971 Soviet space probe that took photos of the Martian surface. Only two, poor-quality photos were ever published, although neither pictured location had been identified. It was a mystery for the last four decades. Until Stooke came along.

“I’m kind of solving a little puzzle there,” he said. “It’s not earth-shaking, but it’s interesting. It’s a challenge.”

He describes the book’s presentation as approachable, if still academic – listing missions and events in chronological order, providing readers with an easy-to-follow history of the planet’s exploration. And while you might not curl up with the atlas at night, Stooke would like to see it as a reference work in as many libraries as possible.

“There’s been a lot of focus on Mars in recent years. Especially right now, we have this brand new big rover driving around, sending back pictures every day,” he said. “There’s a lot happening with Mars right now. And this book provides background on what’s happening right now as well as looking ahead to some rather remote future where people might go to Mars.”

NASA landed the space probe Curiosity in Mars’ Gale Crater on Aug. 6. Since, the rover has been collecting massive amounts of data on climate and geology, as well as sending back some of the most spectacular images ever seen from Earth’s most-popular neighbour.

Not one to miss an opportunity to be a part of the excitement, Stooke has been tracking the rover online, using the daily pictures sent back to compile a real-time map of the rover’s activities. You can read – and see – his work at unmannedspaceflight.com, under the thread MSL Route Map.

Stooke knows his book may fuel the same passion for The Great Beyond he experienced as a teen watching the Apollo mission.

“I guess the public fascination is based on the idea it’s possible things lived there. It’s the one place in the solar system where you might have had life,” Stooke said. “We don’t know for sure that’s the case. But it’s the one possibility.”

And if it happens, you can rest assured it makes the next book.