The Astrogeology Planetary Geologic Mapping Group and the Mars 2020 Rover: A Partnership Built on Bedrock

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As the Perseverance rover speeds its way towards Mars, its Earth-based human counterparts have worked tirelessly to prepare for the rover’s arrival at the Red Planet on February 18, 2021. One of the critical steps in this process has been the preparation and publication of a geologic map of Jezero crater – the Perseverance rover’s future home – and the surrounding cratered plains of Nili Planum.

Geologic maps are powerful tools for rover missions like Perseverance. Rover observations are limited to a small area, but when they are combined with geologic maps, these observations can be put into a broader context and local geologic observations and interpretations can be extrapolated out to other regions. The USGS Astrogeology Planetary Geologic Mapping (PGM) group works with map authors as they propose, create, and publish their geologic maps through the USGS. This includes helping to coordinate and prepare the initial map project, working with authors to implement the correct processes and standards for creating their maps, and conducting the technical review of the maps before they are accepted for publication by the USGS. The PGM group and map authors, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scientists Vivian Sun and Kathryn Stack, worked tirelessly to complete the geologic map of Jezero crater and Nili Planum before Perseverance’s scheduled arrival at Mars. The final map was published by the USGS in December 2020.  

Planetary Geologic Mapping Group at USGS/ASC

Planetary Geologic Mapping Group: Back row (left to right): Tenielle Gaither, Marc Hunter, Trent Hare; Middle row (left to right): Corey Fortezzo, Sarah Black, Jim Skinner;Front row (left to right): Alexandra Huff, Holly Buban, Anderson Moyers,

PGM team lead, Jim Skinner, serves as the Map Coordinator and often pulls from his academic background in geology and professional experience in the environmental and hydrocarbon industry to identify geological features and units on planetary bodies. Jim and others in the PGM group (Sarah Black, Holly Buban, Corey Fortezzo, Tenielle Gaither, Trent Hare, Marc Hunter, and Anderson Moyers) worked closely with other USGS Astrogeology members and the map authors to make sure all the relevant recent investigations that had been completed in and around the map area were included and addressed in the map and its supporting text, and ensure that the final map was of high-quality and adhered to common mapping standards. Through this process, Jim was pleased to see that high-level, standardized geologic maps can be prepared, reviewed, corrected, and published in a shortened timeframe while still producing a high-quality map product. Jim was most proud of “the committed efforts of the authors, the technical reviewers, and the cartographers and editors at the USGS Publication Services Center to complete the rapid turn around of this product. It was printed in less than ten months from its initial submission, without compromising the integrity of the mapping standards or the science of the map.”

In addition to the printed map product, the PGM team took this opportunity to explore new ways to make geologic maps web-accessible and interactive so a broad range of interested users can find and explore the map. PGM team members Sarah Black, Marc Hunter, Anderson Moyers, and Trent Hare worked to create an interactive web-based version of the Jezero crater map that can be accessed and explored by anyone and does not require any data downloads or special training to use. This new interactive map format is part of the PGM team’s ongoing effort to make planetary geologic maps that are easy to access and use so anyone who is interested in planetary science can have the solar system at their fingertips.

The PGM team consists of a diverse group of planetary scientists, geologic mappers, GIS experts, computer scientists, and data management experts. Every team member brings a unique set of skills and knowledge to the group, many of which include experience working in settings outside of the planetary science realm. This diverse set of knowledge allows the team to “recognize the problems that need to be addressed and empowers team members to tackle those problems as they see fit,” says Skinner. “A high level of communication facilitates this success as does trust in each other. We all know what the others are capable of and rely on them to do those tasks. There is no hesitation for team members to step up for each other when needed. The team relies heavily on reliability, responsibility, communication, empowerment, trustworthiness, and of course a healthy dose of humor.”

The geologic map of Jezero crater and Nili Planum is available as an interactive web-based map, and is also freely available for download in PDF and GIS formats on the USGS Astrogeology website.