The Prandtl-m is a conceptual fixed-wing drone for Mars mapping that will be tested this year from a balloon drop over Earth at an altitude of 35,000m to simulate Mars' thin atmosphere, 1/100th as dense as Earth's.

Surveying on Mars

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series February 2017

The subject of Mars exploration and colonization is suddenly red hot. What role might there be for surveyors in this, the grandest of human endeavors?

Above: The Prandtl-m is a conceptual fixed-wing drone for Mars mapping that will be tested this year from a balloon drop over Earth at an altitude of 35,000m to simulate Mars’ thin atmosphere, 1/100th as dense as Earth’s.

All forms of human endeavor that shape our built environment and infrastructure and harvest/manage natural resources are touched by the hand of surveyors. In addition, historically, surveyors were also explorers, mappers of new lands, and chroniclers of their discoveries. As aspirations to further explore and perhaps even colonize Mars look more realistic, the role for surveyors in this, the grandest and most ambitious human adventure, could be an exciting mix of both surveying’s past and its future.

For centuries since the invention of telescopes, visible features of the planets and moons have inspired humankind to imagine the possibility of great metropolises, canals, seas, and civilizations. Both entertainment media and high science were filled with imaginings of these wild possibilities–until the Mariner spacecraft fly-bys of the 1960s.

These early images burst the bubble of popular Mars musings; it was revealed to be a barren, likely lifeless, and very inhospitable place. While humankind kept interest in space exploration at the fore during the race to the moon and then, to a lesser extent, during Earth-orbit science and deep-space probes, interest and support of Mars exploration sharply declined.

Red Hot

But now, this eternally cold, red planet is suddenly quite hot–as a topic. The notion of human exploration and even colonization is a running theme in popular culture, with realistic portrayals of the science, physics, and logistical challenges of Mars exploration. The popular book and film The Martian is steeped in fundamental science. The currently airing National Geographic Channel’s Mars mini-series depicts a year 2033 international effort at colonization, with interviews of present-day scientists, astronauts, and visionaries inserted to highlight relevant storyline elements.

Even current portrayals of science fiction, like the SyFy Channel’s series The Expanse, assume the viewer not only understands basic concepts of space physics, gravity, geology, and orbital mechanics, but also accepts that further exploration of the solar system is valuable – perhaps even an inevitability. While the dreamers and innovators had been working towards Mars all along, it was not until the public “caught up” in understanding the foundation science and technology that Mars again became a tantalizing goal.

Visionaries such as entrepreneur Elon Musk have sunk a tremendous amount of resources into developing what they feel are the essential technologies needed to attempt Mars colonization (and beyond), such as his re-useable, vertically landing SpaceX rockets. Musk sees the stakes as being high and famously made the following ominous warning:

“There’s a fundamental difference, if you look into the future, between a humanity that is a space-faring civilization, that’s out there exploring the stars … compared with one where we are forever confined to Earth until some eventual extinction event.”

Or, as Randall Munroe, the author of XKCD comics (popular with techies) put it,

“The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there is no good reason to go into space.”

There are many other valid reasons to explore Mars, as xyHt’s Jeff Salmon summarized in “Mars Needs Surveyors” in our Pangaea newsletter.

Alien Physicality

How would surveying on Mars differ from on Earth? And what might be the role of surveyors? Our readers have been asking us to explore these very questions. But rather than focus on the “why” of such exploration, we focus on the “how” of Martian surveying. We discovered that, in addition to the challenges of working in such an inhospitable environment where the summer midday temperature at the equator might barely top 0°C, there are broader fundamental physical attributes of Mars that would require near-reinvention of surveying technologies and methods.

Before we explore what future day-to-day Mars surveying might be like, we thought it important to consider foundational science related to Mars. Decades of exploration by satellite and rovers have provided a big-picture view of Mars, its geography (“areography” when referring to Mars), geology, physical geodesy, and environment–but not in enough detail to answer the most pressing questions. Surveyors (in the broader historical context, as explorers) are sure to be involved, but likely with a whole new set of tools and methods. So (to paraphrase David Bowie), take your protein pills and put your helmets on. But you might want to leave your compass, wooden tripods, and more at home.

Errant Compass

Few surveyors still rely on a compass, but the science of magnetism profoundly influences other elements of surveying, geodesy, and signal propagation.

“When we think of surveying, we think about where things are, but [at least in the early phases] in Mars exploration, we are thinking about where people are and how they get back [to base],” said space science researcher Dr. Erika Harnett. “We think of GPS as a kind of necessity.”

It is a given that planning for Mars would include some form of global navigation system; think of an “MNSS” (Mars Navigation Satellite System) that provides the same kind of signal-based ranging capabilities as GPS/GNSS, as either dedicated satellites or as components of multi-purpose satellites. The MNSS would be free of hazards like vegetation-obscured sky view and most tropospheric effects but would face other hazards. As Harnett explains, the source of these hazards stems from the same physical phenomenon that would prevent you from being able to use a compass as a backup.

Dr Erika Harnett in the lab at the university of Washington: in the vacuum chambers, prototype rocket engines are being tested using fuel sources that would likely be found on Mars, such as the native regolith, xyHt february 2017

Dr Erika Harnett in the lab at the university of Washington: in the vacuum chambers, prototype rocket engines are being tested using fuel sources that would likely be found on Mars, such as the native regolith.

Harnett has dreamed of traveling and helping put people in the far reaches of space since she was a youngster watching episodes of Star Trek. Now a research associate professor at the University of Washington, Harnett has been studying the “other” environmental elements of Mars, like magnetic anomalies, solar winds, and radiation–those that would also fundamentally “re-write” how surveying and mapping would be executed on Mars.

“Mars has no global general magnetic field. But it does have pockets of magnetic rock, magnetic anomalies,” Harnett said. “These are mainly in, but not limited to, the southern hemisphere but are very strong, nearly as strong as the Earth’s magnetic field but very localized.”

Harnett explained that these anomalies may have played a major role in forming the other environmental elements of Mars.

“The fact that Mars does not have a global magnetic field, and probably has not had one for a long time, is the reason many scientists think a lot of the water has disappeared. The magnetic field acts as a protective bubble from solar winds. Particles streaming from the sun will react with an atmosphere if there is no protective magnetic field; it will strip off the hydrogen.”

Harnett describes the atmosphere of Mars as lumpy, with protective magnetic “bubbles” around the anomalies and thin atmosphere-exposed areas elsewhere. The sharp contrast in atmospheric conditions between the localized protected areas and those that are not would have effects on radio propagation: a challenge for solutions like GNSS that need to model signals delays.

Just how much the anomalies will affect radio propagation is still being studied, and until landers and rovers test near such anomalies it may not be known if GNSS will be viable for more than rough navigation in those specific areas, or if alternate differential methods should be used for high-precision positioning around the anomalies. And, unless the anomalies were mapped precisely, any compass-based components (think of the multi-axis compasses in your surveying gear that your tilt sensors use to orient the offsets) would not be reliable.

On the bright side for an MNSS, the barren and thin atmosphere, beyond vicinity of anomalies, could make for very precise solutions. Navigation satellite systems have been examined, but at these early stages some of the existing satellites (about 14-15 known, with about half a dozen active at any given time) provide a potential source for using Doppler to navigate. A combination of optical feature (landmark) recognition, ground-based beacons, and coarse Doppler could provide the essential navigation until an MNSS is in place.

A satellite navigation and positioning system may be broadly viewed as an essential for Mars, but there are (to date) no formal plans to put one in place. Current exploration is by satellite and rovers and current criteria can accept very coarse planetary positioning, but with a rising need for much more precise relative (local) navigation. The concept of using self-calibrating psuedolite arrays (SCPA) has been formally explored by entities like Stanford University’s Aerospace Robotics Laboratory. Ground-based ranging signal systems, like pseudolites (or pseudo-satellites), or time-lock systems like Locata, could easily provide the precision desired in the limited regions of intensive mapping and exploration without the overhead (no pun intended) of a full MNSS. Automated (optical) landmark recognition and celestial observations would complement (and provide checks) for these local systems. Of course, the question becomes: how are the pseudolites placed and their positions fixed? If the needs are purely relative within a local region, the pseudolites can establish their relative positions quite precisely, with the landmark and celestial methods providing the coarse geodetic values for the pseudolites.

Once we got past the initial phases of broad but coarse planet-wide mapping and topical (local and precise) mapping and navigation (e.g. during subsequent mass colonization phases), there would then be a compelling need for methods to reconcile very precise geodetic values at any place on the planet. This later-phase, instant-precise geodesy would be akin to what present-day GNSS and methods like PPP (precise point positioning) provide on Earth. At that time, “areographic” surveyors and geodesists would need to deploy methods and technologies designed for the unique “ge-oddities” of Mars. [Ed. A note about the prefix "ares", as in areogeography and "areoid". "Ares" is the Greek god of war, or "mars" in Roman mythology. We misspelled this in the print version of this article (thank you auto-fill). The prefix "ares" or "areo" is often used in the same manner as "geo" is used for earth matters.]

New imagery from multiple orbiters reveals the stark beauty and diversity of Martian geography ("areography" on Mars). Credit: NASA and JPL., xyht february 2017

New imagery from multiple orbiters reveals the stark beauty and diversity of Martian geography (“areography” on Mars). Credit: NASA and JPL.

Geodesy, Time, and Planetocentricity

The Martian day (often referred to as a “Sol”) is about 40 minutes longer than Earth’s. Proposals for time-keeping on Mars have ranged from a type of metric time to the more commonly adapted approach of using clocks with slightly longer time increments stretched into convenient 24-60-60 units. While the time contrast would not dramatically alter surveying and geodesy because developed constants would be applied in software seamlessly (do not let present “leap second” woes on Earth taint that notion), by the time we are seriously exploring Mars such problems should be perfected.

Mars has a similar polar tilt to Earth (25.19° to Earth’s 23°) so it has seasons, although those could be called “cold,” “colder,” “coldest.” Again, things like a longer year (1.88 Earth years) and the other time differences mean only new constants to apply, but the orbital eccentricities of Mars mean much more variability in the length of a solar day. Precisely modeled (this should not preclude effective MNSS use or prohibit precise celestial observation methods), these would be essential in establishing any ground realization of a geodetic framework.

If there is to be any MNSS, there would need to be well defined global center-of-mass. As on Earth, this center would serve as the ultimate “control point” fiducial to any global geodetic reference framework. For instance, the National Spatial Reference System (NSRS) of the U.S. will become truly Earth-centered-Earth-fixed (ECEF) around 2022 (like many other reference systems around the world), and it should be expected that Mars geodesy will be planet-centered-planet-fixed (PCPF) as the references for ellipsoid, geoid (areoid), xyz (Cartesian) coordinate systems, and geographic systems (e.g. latitude/longitude) would all have a common origin. In a way, Mars geodesy gets to avoid the many earth’s historical geodetic systems and conventions and start off on a unified footing. It should be no surprise that such geodetic references have already been developed for Mars. There are some significant differences in approach that might (on the surface) seem backwards, or otherwise odd, in comparison to what we are used to on earth.

The Mars Geodesy/Cartography Working Group was formed in 1998. With participation from the USGS, NASA-JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), and NASA-GSFC (Goddard Spaceflight Center), recommendations for geodetic constants have been published and generally adhered to. The need for such constants arose from incoinsitencies in mapping products from disparate missions and sources. At first consideration, it would appear to be quite simple to establish planetary latitudes and longitudes, but Mars geodesy is being defined from the outside looking in, as opposed to Earth, which is historically from the inside looking out. With this fresh slate and more global data available from the start, we can develop geodetic conventions that would be better suited to the physical form of Mars and serve broader needs.

The true shape of the Earth, especially its oblate form (thicker at the equator due to Earth’s rotation), was not reconciled until the mid-18th century when intrepid surveyors measured the length of degrees of longitude in Ecuador and Lapland, respectively. All geodetic development that followed, including the development of ellipsoids all the way up to tracking systems for GNSS, benefitted from what these ground-based measurements (mostly done with calibrated wooden rods) revealed when compared to celestial observations (done with Zenith circles).

At present, we have no baselines on Mars to compare to celestial observations, but there are fairly well defined 3D representations of the planet’s shape and topography. Satellite-based imagery, radar, gravity data, and radar altimetry have yielded a rough–but workable–shape for Mars. Best-fit ellipsoids have been developed from Mars Orbiter Laser Altimetry (MOLA), a key product of the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft that operated in orbit from 1997 to 2006.

The geographic reference system we are familiar with on Earth is “planetographic”; Mars activities are leaning more towards “planetocentric.” In 1971 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) defined the two types of reference systems for planets, their moons, and other bodies (e.g. asteroids). It would take more articles to fully contrast the two systems, but, in short, geodetic modeling and transformations (e.g. between reference ellipsoid, physical shape of the planet, and geoid) do not fit each other for Mars quite as well as those of Earth, so the planetocentric approach has advantages.

Firstly, it is right-handed, independent of the reference ellipsoid, and is the same as the spherical coordinate system used for planetary navigation and gravity modelling. It is also normal to the local ellipsoid–nearly normal to true vertical. A planetographic approach has an advantage in historical uses; even with simple analog instrumentation a surveyor can, to a pretty good approximation, directly determine geographic latitude. The latter was essential during the development of geodetic methods over the centuries on earth, but fast forward many centuries to the (likely) very well modelled Mars and we have ability to take advantage of a planetocentric approach. Many Mars observation products and maps have been produced in ‘east’ (planetocentric), and others in ‘west’ (planetographic); others note both. Whichever system will define how we survey on Mars going forward–hard to tell–both will come with not insignificant challenges for the science and mapping/surveying folks: translating data between them, if two systems are perpetuated, for example.

Various prime meridians have been defined for Mars since the early 19th century. After the Mariner 9 mission mapped Mars (to about a kilometer resolution, in 1972) the tiny, half kilometer diameter, Airy-0 crater was chosen as the longitude zero point. For most of the subsequent mapping efforts this target was small enough. In 2001, more detailed imagery of the tiny crater was taken; a more precise reference point within chosen. The challenge of defining meter resolution or smaller geodetic references for Mars (and observation products) is that we do not have a well-defined set of physical references that can be reconciled from the satellite imagery.

Mars does not have a general global magnetic field like Earth. Instead, it has strong but localized magnetic anomalies that influence the atmosphere and signal propagation around the anomalies. Revised surveying solutions and equipment would need to be designed for these conditions. Credit: NASA.

Mars does not have a general global magnetic field like Earth. Instead, it has strong but localized magnetic anomalies that influence the atmosphere and signal propagation around the anomalies. Revised surveying solutions and equipment would need to be designed for these conditions. Credit: NASA.

One could picture an array of multi-purpose reference stations; they might be a combination of Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) antennas (deriving alignment to distant radio sources like quasars, as do such stations on earth), plus automated zenith cameras for celestial observations, and eventually MNSS receivers. These would also serve as satellite tracking stations to derive clock and orbit data for precise point positioning (PPP). Establish an array of these, especially one at the prime meridian, with beacons, a zenith laser, and a visible aerial target, and Martian geodesy could have its physical ties with observation and navigation systems.

Relative Calm

Something that surveyors and geodesists must deal with on Earth that would be far less of an issue on Mars is dynamic positions. Harnett said that Mars has negligible plate tectonics, and that although it has volcanoes we do not know just how long ago they may have been active–they certainly are inactive now. But back to plate tectonics. Harnett said there is negligible tidal effect from the gravitational pull of Mars moons; a set survey marker will be in the same place for a very long time. It might get a coating of dust, but it will be quite geodetically stable. Harnett likes science in movies like The Martian but feels the dust storm hazards get exaggerated. The atmosphere is so thin that even high-speed winds do not have the force to tip over rockets or flatten habitats. Dust, though, can be an impediment, can obscure solar panels, and can get into delicate equipment.

Science fiction also tends to play up the radiation hazards on Mars. The hazards are not negligible but are more of a concern for people working on Mars than for equipment. Harnett says that the radiation exposure is much the same as astronauts’ experience on the International Space Station (ISS).

A caveat is that this has been true for the solar minimum and weak solar maximum. Scientists are not sure about levels during a strong solar maximum, as we do not have that data yet. Another issue is duration. For a short stay, the ISS level radiation exposure may not be an issue, but for colonization or two- to three-year stays, it may be more of a problem.

“The Curiosity rover [landed in 2012 and still roving] is the first one we sent with radiation sensors,” Harnett said. “Interesting is that we typically send rovers to Mars in [full] hibernation and wake them up when they get there. But for Curiosity the radiation sensors were left on throughout the entire transit so they could measure radiation en route in addition to on the ground.”

We do not anticipate that solar radiation will be much of a hazard, as engineers for many decades have been designing to protect people and equipment from radiation.

A larger issue than solar radiation, Harnett noted, is galactic cosmic radiation coming from the rest of the galaxy.

“Solar is energetic but not as energetic as the galactic cosmic radiation. Higher energy, lower flux, but higher energy that actually maximizes when the sun is at a solar minimum: they are out of phase.”

But again, Harnett said that the technologies to protect equipment from harmful radiation are pretty good already, and advances in using lightweight materials like polyethylene will help. But the technology for humans is still in development, particularly for during the transit through space.

Caves and lava tubes are considered the best places to build permanently: they are thermally and structurally stable, naturally shielded from radiation, and have the best potential access to subterranean ice, which is also critical to colonization efforts. If the science is correct, there are thousands of substantial deposits of subterranean ice; NASA-JPL reports that one ice deposit holds enough water to fill Lake Superior. Scientific teams (even some high school science clubs) are combing through imagery looking for cave/lava tube skylights, and as many as 2,000 potential sites have been identified. The hunt for these caves and associated mapping needs to utilize them could be a major factor in shaping roles and activities for Martian surveyors.

Another potential hazard to working on Mars, Harnett said, are the health effects of extended stays in low-gravity, which are not completely understood. She explained that data from extended astronaut stays on the ISS show that some effects tend to plateau after a certain period while other effects may not show up until far into a mission. One effect is brain fluid pressure on the eyes: astronauts report vision degradation. More research into these health areas is essential.

There are Mars environment challenges to hardware as well; the very low atmospheric density also proves to be an engineering conundrum for one mapping technology in particular: drones.

The 1Kg Mars Helicopter Scout may launch with the M2020 mission and is designed to provide advanced mapping to assist ground rover navigation, xyht february 2017

The 1Kg Mars Helicopter Scout may launch with the M2020 mission and is designed to provide advanced mapping to assist ground rover navigation.

Drones and Bots

Mars has been frequently, and somewhat comprehensively, observed from above for many decades. Different missions have filled in a near-complete image set at 6m pixels or less. Orbiters, like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) launched in 2005, pack a variety of sensors. One of the MRO’s multiple cameras is the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). It can provide stereo pairs as tight as 0.25m. This is suited for detailed mapping of potential landing sites or areas of interest for rovers to traverse, but not for wide-area mapping. Up-close exploration is for rovers, but rovers are painfully slow and difficult to control.

There is a significant resolution gap; the low-resolution global imagery can show features like an outcrop of potential scientific interest, but it’s not detailed enough for rover navigation and identifying specific features to navigate to. They move slow and must react autonomously as they try to follow preset paths. With signal delays between 14 and 24 minutes, “joy-sticking” guidance of rovers remotely from Earth is completely impractical.

MiMi Aung, guidance and control section manager at JPL, is the chief engineer for the Mars Helicopter Scout program. In her presentations on the project, Aung gave the example of how the Curiosity rover spent 340 Sols exploring the rim of the Victoria crater. With the little drone she hopes to deploy with the M2020 mission, the same ground could be covered in perhaps as little as 10 days.

With rotor span dimensions limited by the size of the rover that deploys the drone, this first-of-its-kind Mars drone can weigh only 1 Kg total. The small solar panel above this tissue-box-sized drone may provide enough charge for only a three-minute flight per Sol. From 40m up and with a 600m range, the drone could provide 3cm pixel imagery; this would process into a full 3D model to improve rover navigation. With larger rotors, solar panels, and eventually other power-recharge sources like safe reactors, future drones will fill a much-needed space between the satellite sensors and the ponderously slow rovers.

Until humans are within viable radio range to “joy-stick” operate rovers, such bots need to operate with a high degree of autonomy. Harnett and Aung noted that advanced autonomy technology is currently used for landers and rovers. With elements of artificial intelligence being developed in leaps and bounds, the prospect of even more functions being performed by bots on Mars, by the time humans set foot on the planet, may make moot many of the assumptions about what activities will require hands-on personnel.

From various orbiter mission images, radr, and laser altimetry, Mars has a wide variety of maps. Indeed, there are full-planet sets of USGS quad maps. Raw areographic data has been made available openly–GIS practitioners and cartographers have been creating their own maps for decades. Mars may have full global imagery, but the low-resolution comes with a lot of uncertainty in selecting sites for landings, rover missions, and scientific study.

Misinterpretations of Mars imagery have resulted in amusing repercussions. Typically, when Mars imagery and terrain models were published for broad consumption, a vertical exaggeration was applied, and people saw features that they imagined could only have been constructed by intelligent beings. When higher resolution images (without vertical exaggeration) were published, those notions burst.

With the progression of newer orbiters comes better cameras, but these are often unable to cover much territory. Observation time is a limited resource that scientists need to lobby for. It is also difficult to zero-in and orient the cameras to capture individual elements of interest. Many of Mars’ secrets may remain hidden until manned missions when a new breed of intrepid surveyors (in the broad sense of the term) arrive.

Surveying Instrumentation

It goes without saying that any equipment used on Mars would be highly engineered, not only the unique environmental conditions but also to be reliable and have the very best in capabilities: no second-tier anything. Certainly, a tripod is a logical and stable mount for portable sensors, cameras, and antennas, but other Mars’ surveying equipment might not look like, or function like, anything we have in our survey trucks today. Sensors that can articulate or at the very least rotate from atop a tripod mount, or more likely a rover mount, would most likely be remotely operated. And you would not likely be standing behind some type of Martian total station sighting through an eyepiece.

Presently, eyepieces on total stations are starting to disappear; operation via onboard cameras viewed on tablets (or soon on heads-up displays) is already happening. Instruments may continue the trend of adding more sensors, scanners, cameras, perhaps light-field-picture (LPF) cameras, sonic, and more to total stations–or perhaps a robotic arm that pulls out an appropriate sensor for each situation and snaps it into place? As Harnett noted, they would have to be free of small components that could not be operated by someone wearing the gloves of a space suit. And they would also have to be robust against very fine Martian dust. We could have a lot of fun imagining such things.

Mars surveyor's NASA patch, xyht february 2017There would be much more use of satellite, drone, and rover-based sensors. The surface would be observed by multi-spectral cameras, InSAR, radar, laser altimetry, and mobile mapping rovers that operate autonomously. For fine detail work, the “Certified Areographic Surveyor” (only the qualified may wear the patch, of course) might spend more time in the habitat donning a VR headset than outside.

If an MNSS constellation is put in orbit, or some other type of signal-based ranging is deployed on the surface, the receivers may become minor components added to multi-purpose devices. The dawn of the “software defined receiver” (SDR) is already upon us; nearly any high-performance processor can have software loaded into it to perform as a high-precision GNSS (hence MNSS as well) receiver. The only dedicated hardware needed for an SDR would be a capable external antenna.

And like other elements of Mars equipment, the latest developments in surveying hardware and software designs can be transmitted from Earth and 3D printed as needed. It might not be too far-fetched to envision the day when all but the most specialized hardware (or components that need raw materials not recoverable from recycling or otherwise available locally) are simply 3D printed on Mars as needed.

Will there be boundary work on Mars? If history shows us anything, it is that if something of value is found, people will get territorial about it and boundaries will be established. While it appears that Mars colonization will take the form of consortiums of multiple countries and perhaps public-private ventures, anything could happen in the long term, and some form of “resource rushes” could ensue. While today various treaties touch on ownership of property and resource rights on planets, moons, and asteroids, the subject is still very much in flux.

But say, for whatever reason, boundaries are needed on Mars. The delineation methods would be able to take advantage of great advances in technology and in highly developed cadasters. Even without the uncertainty of disparate and incomplete historical land records to deal with, we might still need the professional skills of a surveyor in matters of land law and interpretation of evidence. Short of that eventuality, and more common earlier in the colonization of Mars, the surveyor may be more involved in another essential role: construction.

Designs for structures and habitats to be reliable and safe in the unique (and dangerous) environment of Mars will be examples of extreme engineering. Components will mostly be pre-engineered, likely 3D printed lattice works for strength and weight considerations, and composed of exotic composites using as much local material (e.g., “regolith”: the dust and loose rock covering the surface) as possible. Precise construction measurements and real-time metrology for BIM will be the norm. Targets for laser, photogrammetric, and robotic metrology sensors will be added to nearly every component to enable robotic construction, and for essential structural integrity monitoring.

In considering the possibility of all of this proposed automation, robotics, and remote sensing, realistically what need will there be for surveyors? Easy. We will need experts to make sure those things work and to verify they are working right. This might take a whole new type of surveyor, willing to leap forward, way forward. To play with a quote from the protagonist of The Martian, when faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge stranded alone on Mars,

“[surveyors may need to] science the sh** out of this.”

Wearing Multiple Hats (Helmets)

The “tyranny of the rocket equation” holds that only a tiny fraction of a rocket can be payload–the majority needs to be fuel. Weight is at a premium. Resources needed to put a human on Mars would be tremendous. Until a colony could be self-sufficient in energy, water, and food, every Kg of payload will be at a premium, as will every crewmember. That a Mars explorer will need to perform multiple roles is a given, and the extensive use of robotics makes the most sense for the same reason. Surveying functions might be a tiny percentage of the duties of the early Mars mission participants. But somebody will need to train them for those tasks.

But let’s imagine that safe (or isolated) nuclear reactors solve the power needs, habitats are built in caves with access to plentiful ice, food is grown in the habitats, and regolith is exploited for building materials and for 3D printing of new and replacement tools and hardwareÑand even for fuel for return flights and further exploration.

At that point in the colonization of Mars, survival might be less the prime mission, freeing up time for the work of further exploiting Mars resources, deeper science, and creating a stepping stone from which to launch missions to other celestial bodies. There may, by then, be more substantive needs for “non-robotic” surveying, but the role, education, and skills needed may still constitute only one of many hats.

It is very likely that every Mars explorer will need to have a solid foundation in geology, electronics, and at least emergency medical training. Other highly desired qualifications would include chemistry, engineering, and astrophysics. Surveyors historically have also been mappers, explorers, naturalists, geologists, astronomers, and more, so the idea of surveyor as a utility player is not new.

The Mars Global Surveyor mission, by way of its name, gave a nod to surveying, but not exactly in the sense of how present-day practitioners use the term. When asked about the choice of the word “surveyor” for the mission, Dr. Daniel McCleese, chief scientist at NASA’s JPL, told us,

“The name ‘surveyor’ best matched the mapping objectives of the mission. Other names, e.g. ‘explorer,’ were in use at the time. A subsequent mission, which also had a mapping theme, was called ‘Observer.’”

The term “surveying,” in the broader and historical sense, is recognized.

Only in the last century has the work of surveyors been dominated by the rapid expansion of housing and real-property development, and it has become–in the eyes of the public and many in the profession–boundary-surveying centric. Maybe it is time to go back to the historical roots of surveyors-as-explorers. Could the surveying profession carve out a solid role in the potential future colonization of Mars?

If the profession were to start serious examination of the possibilities, we might establish a role. It might take groups of committed surveyors who plan for a future they may not personally be able to participate in, for a planet they may never see. But it always takes vast numbers of people to support and make successful truly pioneering efforts.

Mars exploration sits out there waiting for the hand of surveyors, possibly directly and definitely by extension. But only if we step up and dream big.


Improved geoid (or "areoid" for Mars) models have been developed recently using Doppler and range tracking of orbiter spacecraft. Credit: NASA.

Improved geoid (or “areoid” for Mars) models have been developed recently using Doppler and range tracking of orbiter spacecraft. Credit: NASA.


The polar ice caps of Mars are a potential resource for colonization; they contain both water ice and frozen carbon dioxide (dry ice). Also, there are massive subterranean ice deposits (one with enough water to fill Lake Superior) in other regions of Mars that are more desirable for exploration. Credit: NASA.

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