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As LiDAR technology and aerial surveying continue to grow, it is interesting to reflect on how long this technology has been in use and to consider some of the ground-breaking projects that have relied upon geospatial tech, such as the exploration of Mars.

Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA)

On November 7, 1996 NASA launched the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) with the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) allowing researchers to calculate the height of surface features on the planet by measuring the time that an infrared laser pulse takes to leave the orbiting spacecraft, reflect off of the ground, and return to MOLA’s collecting mirror. The mission of the Mars Global Surveyor was to orbit Mars and map out the surface, gathering the most up to date information on the terrain of the planet. The mission was successfully completed within four and a half years, and the data gathered was used to construct a precise topographic map.

As the spacecraft flies above the surface of the planet over hills, valleys, and craters, its altitude above the ground constantly changes. A combination of MOLA data with images from the camera allows scientists to construct a detailed topographical atlas of the planet. These maps will help us to understand the geological forces that have shaped Mars.

Mapping Mars

Beginning in March 1998, tasked with mapping the entire Martian globe, the Mars Global Surveyor began making pole-to-pole observations of the planet, an undertaking that would lay the foundation for ten more years of NASA missions. This challenging assignment would allow NASA to determine the geology and possibly even the past history of Mars and its climate. This application of geospatial technology was designed to compile global maps of Mars while collecting data on its atmosphere, surface composition, and evolution.

Image Source: NASA –
This is a closeup of the LiDAR instrument, which would remotely profile for the first time, water vapor up to nine miles above the Martian surface along with wind speeds and minute particles suspended in the planet’s atmosphere.

Over the past two decades, this effort has seen massive successes and as of 2021 is still a critical part of NASA’s exploration of Mars, and in fact will be extremely important for any manned Mars missions that may be undertaken in the future. This incredible feat will be accomplished through the use of human-like robots which will be used to build base stations for future astronauts that will make the voyage. According to NASA, LiDAR technology will be what allows these robots to ‘see’ and interact with the environment around them. To navigate the planet, the robot must be able to identify objects and respond appropriately. Lidar gives the robot’s processing unit the ability to ‘see’ so that it can assess what is in front of it, determine if it’s human or an object, and analyze and utilize resources found on planet.

Although NASA has had success with LiDAR missions in the past, this instrument will be the first that will be able to measure water vapour in vertical columns above the surface of Mars. Scientists Jim Abshire and Scott Guzewich, both from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland have had success using this technology to measure carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. Abshire and Guzewich won NASA technology-development funding for this novel approach to profiling atmospheric water vapour and winds using LiDAR. They will build and demonstrate a small prototype atmospheric LiDAR for a future landing on Mars, with the possibility of extending this use of this technology for a mission on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

These types of measurements can help provide scientists with the information they need to understand

  • the origin of organic materials in the solar system
  • the habitability of other plants
  • the possibility of life beyond Earth

As LiDAR technology continues to progress, its use at Leading Edge Geomatics are endless. Contact our team today to learn how you can use LiDAR in your business efforts.

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