The Best Map Yet of What Could Be NASA’s Next Mars Landing Site

On the night of November 28, 1659, a Dutch astronomer named Christiaan Huygens aimed toward the sky a 22-foot telescope of his own invention, peered through its compound eyepiece, and drew the first known illustration—the first map, really—of Mars. His sketch, though crude, captured a dark, distinctive surface feature. Today, astronomers know it as Syrtis Major.

And they’re about to get to know it a lot better.

At Syrtis Major’s northeastern edge you’ll find one of the most intriguing crops of geology ever observed on another planet. Its terrain—sandwiched between a large volcano and one of the biggest, oldest craters on Mars—preserves a chapter of the planet’s early history marked by warm, watery environments where microbial life might have flourished. Now, 358 years after Hyugens first described Syrtis Major’s outlines, planetary geologists have charted its fascinating northeasterly province at higher resolution, and in finer geological detail, than ever before.