Mars Spacecraft finally upgrades from Windows 98 Era software

The 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.
Illustration: ESA

The days of dial-up internet, AOL Instant Messenger and Myspace may be over on Earth, but on Mars, the first years of the Internet are still alive. A Mars spacecraft has been running software developed more than 20 years ago in a proprietary environment based on Microsoft Windows 98, and it’s long overdue for an upgrade.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is update it is Mars Express orbiters MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ioniospheric Sounding) software, 19 years after the launch of the spacecraft. The MARSIS instrument, the first radar sonar to orbit another planet, helped discover evidence of water on Mars in 2018. MARSIS sends low-frequency radio waves to the planet using a huge, 131-foot (40-meter) antenna, as the spacecraft Mars Express orbits Mars.

MARSIS does all this using very outdated software that has not been updated since the spacecraft was launched in June 2003. The software was designed in an environment based on Windows 98, which does not work with today’s internet unless you jump through many hoops. “After decades of fruitful science and having gained a good understanding of Mars, we wanted to push the instrument’s performance beyond some of the constraints needed back when the mission began,” said Andrea Cicchetti, MARSIS Deputy Director, who led the development of the upgrade. in a statement.

The new software is designed by the National Institute for 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 on-board computing “to increase the amount and quality of scientific data sent to Earth,” according to ESA.

“In the past, to study the main properties of Mars, and to study the moon Phobos in general, we relied on a complex technique that stored a lot of high-resolution data and filled up the instrument’s built-in memory very quickly,” Cicchetti said. “By discarding data we don’t need, the new software allows us to turn on MARSIS five times as long and explore a much larger area for each pass.”

The new software will be used to study areas near the South Pole on Mars, where signs of liquid water on the red planet were previously detected in lower resolution data. With MARSIS, the Windows 98 era dropped software, it will be able to examine these regions much faster by using high resolution data. Determining whether Mars had liquid water is crucial to knowing if the planet was ever habitable during its early history, and if it could possibly have hosted some form of life.

Mars Express has worked hard for the past 19 years, and the spacecraft’s mission has been extended seven times so far. Although it is currently ESA’s lowest mission, Mars Express has provided valuable data on Mars and the 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 board the Mars Express almost 20 years after launch,” Cicchetti said.