Inspired by the Mars Curiosity rover, I set out to map Mars using all open source tools (like QGIS and TileMill) and open data. The results of these tools and awesome data are stunning. The first shows Mars as “the red planet,” and the second map uses a more divergent color ramp to show Mars’ topographical variation.

The Red Planet

The Red Planet


Mars Terrain

Explore Mars

Mars Microsite

You can explore Mars for yourself on the Mars open data mapping website I created. I’ll be updating it as I create new maps using awesome planetary open data.

Mapping Mars

My first step along the way was to install the USGS’s Integrated Software for Imagers and Spectrometers ISIS, a software library that makes it pretty convenient to obtain planetary DEM data in the ISIS 3 cube format, which GDAL supports. Thanks to USGS’ great documentation, it was easy to get started with ISIS.

My next step was to use GDAL to generate the hillshades, color relief, and slope shading. I took advantage of the great guides we have for working with terrain data that we have in our Tilemill Docs section. To get a better idea about what my process looked like, check out the scripts here.

The last step was to take the finished GeoTiffs into Tilemill to style them using the great new compositing features that Mapnik has.

Mars GIS Data

Using data from the USGS, I added a layer showing the landing locations for the other missions to Mars since 1971. I then added a named features layer using data from the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature, provided by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). I came across other great resources, too, for those interested in mapping mars.

Planetary Interactive G.I.S.-on-the-Web Analyzable Database (PIGWAD)

PIGWAD has maps and data for Mars, the Moon, Venus, Callisto, Europa, Ganymede, and IO. There are also useful tutorials, scripts and an active discussion forum. They have a section on Mars Downloads where you can download crater, dune, and valley network GIS data.


The USGS Astrogeology Research Program maintains Map-a-Planet, which allows users to browse by planet, explore available datasets, and submit custom orders for reprojected or reformatted imagery. Be sure to check out the Mars Merged Color Basemap, which combines Viking Color mosaic imagery and the Viking Mars Digital Image Models, which show topography.

High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment

The University of Arizona maintains the HiRISE website, which contains frequently updated high resolution imagery from Mars. They even have images of Curiosity rover in Gale Crater taken from above.

If you’re interested and want to find out more about Mars, check out the Mars Science Laboratory, and of course follow Curiosity Rover on Twitter @MarsCuriosity.