IUP Geoscience Professor Part of Team Creating Atlas of Mars

Posted on 11/20/2019 2:16:56 PM

Looking for that perfect little getaway, maybe something that is really out of this world?

Ken Coles in the IUP Planetarium holding the Atlas of Mars Thanks to planetary scientist and educator Kenneth Coles, a geoscience faculty member at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, working with Kenneth Tanaka  (United States Geological Survey’s Astrogeology team) and Philip Christensen (Arizona State University), we Earthlings will have a much better understanding of our next-door planetary neighbor with The Atlas of Mars: Mapping its Geography and Geology.

The atlas was released in England in August 2019 and became available in America in October. It is the result of eight years of painstaking work. It updates NASA’s last atlas of the planet, which was published in 1979.

This new atlas is designed for a broad audience, and reflects new information and knowledge about Mars, its authors explain. It has a special focus on geology, including how the environment has changed over the history of Mars.

“While some of this will be of use to active Mars researchers, we particularly hope to reach other readers: scientists from other fields, interested non-scientists, and persons who wonder what all the missions to Mars have told us,” the authors write in the preface of the book.

Published by Cambridge University Press, the atlas covers Mars in 30 charts, each with a topographic map; a daytime infrared map based on images from the THEMIS camera on the Mars Odyssey spacecraft; a geologic map of the corresponding area; and a section describing prominent features of interest. The atlas also includes information on Mars’ global characteristics, regional geography and geology, a glossary of terms, and an index of Martian feature names and nomenclature. It also has a webpage offering extra materials.

“Every day that I wasn’t teaching, I’ve been working on this in one way or another,” Coles said. “It’s given me millions of ideas for undergraduate research projects and truly made me feel like a scientist again.”

It’s been a long road to get to the finish.

“In 2011, I had the opportunity to take a sabbatical leave, and I wanted something substantial to propose to IUP as the project I’d be working on,” Coles said. 

“It was perfect timing. The US Geological Survey [USGS] received a grant from NASA to create a new geological map of Mars, using photos taken since Viking—the Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, and several others. The publishing company approached Ken [Tanaka] to do the atlas, and Ken invited me into the project. It was an enormous undertaking; Cambridge Publishing had gotten other proposals, but they felt confident that with us, it would be possible.”

Coles authored the atlas proposal during and after that 2012 sabbatical. He did some additional writing in 2013, quickly realizing that the project had so many complex details, including editing names on the maps, editing photographs, and working to get the right illustrations from scientists and scholars.

“One of our first questions was, ‘who is our audience?’ We decided to shoot for a broad readership, hoping that a motivated non-researcher could read and understand it, and I think we’ve accomplished that goal,” Coles said.

The full draft with all the figures and index was submitted to the publisher in August 2018. Scatter proofs and resizing of maps with the correct scales followed. Coles worked with a copy editor from England on two full copy edits of the atlas. Finally, it was sent out for typesetting in May 2019.

“The production process has taken an entire year,” Coles said. “Every step is so much more involved than what I could have imagined. I’m very happy it’s completed.”

In July, the atlas team attended the Ninth International Conference on Mars at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Coles presented a poster session about the atlas—receiving “very positive responses,” Coles said.

Coles came to IUP in 2004 after working as a high school science teacher. In addition to his course work, he directs the IUP planetarium and offers community programming throughout the year at the planetarium. Planetary science has always been an interest; he grew up in Pasadena, California, during the Moon race. 

Coles’ father was a professor of engineering at Caltech. Coles studied there for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and then did his doctoral work at Colombia University. His geology field project for his doctorate took place in Nevada. 

“Whenever I could, I worked to link geology to planetary geology in my teaching, and I’ve followed the work of experts in this field,” he said.

His co-authors have been long-time colleagues and friends.

Tanaka, who attended Caltech with Coles, was an early participant in the geologic mapping of Mars at the Astrogeology office of the USGS, which was originally founded in the 1960s to train the Apollo astronauts in geology. Christensen is principal investigator for the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), a co-investigator on the Mars Exploration Rover missions, and a faculty member in the Department of Geological Science at Arizona State University.

Coles said that while there are thousands of research papers about Mars published annually, there is still much to be known and understood about the “red planet.”

“Some basic features on Mars are ones for which we don’t have an explanation,” he said. “For example, there are impact craters on one side and the other side is smooth. There are a lot of proposals about why this global dichotomy exists, but we don’t have enough information to pin down an answer.”

Coles said that Mars has some very distinctive features—for example, its Valles Marineris, discovered by Mariner 9, are five times deeper than Earth’s Grand Canyon. On Earth, Valles Marineris would stretch from San Francisco to New York City. The largest mountain and volcano on Mars, Olympus Mons, is 70,000 feet high—three times higher than Mount Everest. 

“It’s still a case of the blind man and the elephant when it comes to Mars,” Coles said. “Remote sensors on robotic spacecrafts are helping, but we’re still putting the pieces together.

“Advanced equipment is gathering information that we never had before, and scientists are taking a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding Mars. We definitely saw that at the July conference, which drew some 400 people interested in Mars research from a number of academic fields.”

Coles says that while the distance, which is tens of millions of miles, and the fragility of the human organism is a challenge for humans to visit Mars, he feels certain it will happen.

“Somebody will do it. If America doesn’t do it, some other country will.”

NASA is actively planning for Mars 2020, a robotic mission to Mars.