Jason DavisFeb 06, 2014

The Mars Exploration Family Portrait is expanding, and I need your help

I’m happy to announce that the Mars Exploration Family Portrait is expanding to cover the rest of the solar system! 

Back in December, I received an email from Robert Sieg, a self-described amateur graphics designer and space enthusiast. Robert created a Venus Exploration Family Portrait using my same format, showing every spacecraft ever sent to our cloudy neighbor. It has been previously suggested that I expand the Mars portrait to cover the entire solar system, but I was hesitant—these projects take a lot of effort and must be perpetually updated.

But since Robert has graciously knocked out at least one of the other planets, let’s go for it. Seeing the spacecraft that have explored all of the planets, moons, asteroids and comets together in one impossibly massive poster will be quite a sight. I’m already imagining how lonely Uranus and Neptune will look with just Voyager 2 sailing past.

Before we expand the series, I want to make a few design changes, and I’m asking for feedback. The challenge in creating any decent infographic is to effortlessly display as much information as possible without creating clutter. 

To that end, my first change is the elimination of the mission description lines. I found it too cumbersome and subjective to summarize each mission with just one line of text. How do you convey years of painstaking effort by scientists and engineers in one short phrase? Saying “missed planet” or “orbiting Mars” just doesn’t seem to do these spacecraft justice, so I’d rather place them all on equal footing by eliminating the descriptions.

I do, however, feel it is important to note whether each mission was a success, partial success or failure, so I added a color coding system to fulfill that job. I realize I just finished saying how simple descriptions don’t do a mission justice, but I think that in order to tell the overall story of the exploration of each planet, we need to at least indicate whether each mission succeeded or failed. 

I also received feedback that there should be a way to note the different components of each mission.  For example, I had previously not indicated that the hugely successful Viking missions contained both an orbiter and lander.

Finally, I felt it was important to give a tip of the hat to missions that are still operating. I put a blue dot next to any mission still going strong, such as Mars Odyssey—at your service since 2001.

So, before we move on to Venus, I’d love for our readers to weigh in.

I've already received some preliminary feedback lamenting the loss of the description lines. Do you agree or disagree with my changes? What about the color codes—are they too cryptic? It was also suggested that I run the graphic through a color blindness simulator to make sure there is contrast between the colors. I did that, and at first glance it looks like the colors maintain different shades. Is there anything I’ve missed or could do better? I hope you’ll leave me a comment or send me an email.

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