Mars Spacecraft Finally Upgrades From Windows 98 Era Software

Artist's impression of Mars Express.  The background is based on an actual image of Mars taken by the spacecraft's high-resolution stereo camera.

An illustration of the Mars Express spacecraft launched in 2003.
Drawing: ESA

The era of dial-up internet, AOL Instant Messenger and Myspace may be on Earth, but on Mars the early years of the Internet are still alive. A Martian spacecraft runs on software designed over 20 years ago in a proprietary environment based on Microsoft Windows 98, and has long been awaiting an upgrade.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is update his Mars-Express orbiter MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ioniospheric Sounding) software, 19 years after the spacecraft launched. The MARSIS instrument, the first radar sounder to orbit another planet, helped discover evidence of water on Mars in 2018. MARSIS sends low-frequency radio waves toward the planet using a massive 131-foot-long (40-meter) antenna, like the Mars Express spacecraft orbiting Mars.

The MARSIS does all of this using very outdated software that has not been updated since the spacecraft launched in June 2003. The software was designed in a Windows 98-based environment, which does not work with the Modern Internet unless you jump through a lot of hoops. “After decades of successful science and having gained a good understanding of Mars, we wanted to push the performance of the instrument beyond some of the limits required at the start of the mission,” Andrea Cicchetti, Deputy Principal Investigator MARSIS, who led the development of the upgrade, says in a statement.

The new software was designed by the National Institute of Astrophysics in Italy, which operates the spacecraft. The team behind the new software implemented a number of upgrades that would improve the instrument’s ability to send and receive signals, as well as its onboard data processing “to increase the amount and the quality of scientific data sent to Earth,” according to ESA. .

“Previously, to study the most important features of Mars, and to study its moon Phobos, we relied on a complex technique that stored lots of high-resolution data and filled the instrument’s onboard memory very quickly,” said Cicchetti. said. “By removing data we don’t need, the new software allows us to run MARSIS five times longer and explore a much larger area with each pass.”

The new software will be used to study regions near the south pole on Mars, where signs of liquid water on the Red Planet have previously been detected in low-resolution data. With MARSIS abandoning its Windows 98 era software, he will be able to examine these regions much faster, using high-resolution data. Determining whether Mars had liquid water is crucial to knowing whether the planet was ever habitable early in its history and whether it could have supported life.

Mars Express has been hard at work for the past 19 years, with the spacecraft’s mission extended seven times so far. Although currently ESA’s lowest-cost mission, Mars Express has provided valuable data on Mars and its moon Phobos. And with the new software update, the team behind the spacecraft expects bigger things from this retro orbiter. “It’s really like having a brand new instrument on Mars Express almost 20 years after launch,” Cicchetti said.

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