With the recent successful landing of the Curiosity rover on the Martian surface, it seems NASA has managed to once again inspire the masses about the possibilities of space flight and exploration of other world in our solar system. But even for the most ardent of space buffs, it can be hard to truly grasp the scale and features of a distant planet like Mars. After all, every school child is taught the geography of our home world from a very young age, but the same attention is never given to our nearby planetary neighbors.
But with the data constantly being returned from craft like Curiosity and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and their suite of open source tools, MapBox is well on the way to making the Red Planet much more accessible for those of us stuck here on Earth.
MapBox is another example of a company turning open source tools into a viable business for themselves. They give away their open source map generation tools to the public, and make their money on cloud-based map hosting packages. So a company or individual can download the tools to make the maps for free, and then for a monthly fee, can host said maps up for anyone to see and interact with.
This approach seems to be working very well for them, as big name clients such as foursquare, NPR, Greenpeace, and the FCC are currently making use of their services and tools.
MapBox’s attempt at bringing their unique take to open source cartography to Mars started off as a side project, inspired by NASA’s Curiosity rover itself. On August 26th, MapBox analyst Chris Herwig took to the company’s blog to post about his work in taking publicly available data from NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the International Astronomical Union and feeding it into various open source tools from MapBox and other developers.
Completed only two weeks after Curiosity’s dramatic touchdown in Gale Crater, Chris Herwig’s interactive map of the Martian surface was uploaded to the popular GitHub development site. With this detailed new map of the Martian surface, the public is able to easily explore the topography of Mars, and see where the various landers and rovers have touched down on the surface since 1971.
While Chris may have started this project as a lark, its already been used by both NASA and foursquare to allow the Curiosity rover to “check in” on the surface of Mars. By appealing to social networks and other services frequented by the younger crowd, NASA hopes to rekindle some of the public interest in the US space program which has been declining steadily over the years.