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After 19 years, Mars spacecraft equipment's Windows 98-based software gets update

By NICK GARCIA Published Jun 26, 2022 1:20 pm

Time is relative, eh? A spacecraft exploring Mars since 2003 is finally updating its equipment's software that was developed using Microsoft Windows 98—in a bid to boost its performance after nearly two decades.

Mars Express, launched by the European Space Agency (ESA), is on a mission to unearth the Red Planet's secrets. It's using an instrument called MARSIS, or Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding.

MARSIS sends low-frequency radio waves down towards the planet using its 40-meter long antenna. It's operated by the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (National Institute for Astrophysics) or INAF and fully funded by the Italian Space Agency (ASI).

The instrument famously discovered signs of liquid water on Mars, including a suspected 20 by 30 kilometer lake of salty water buried under a 1.5 km of ice in the southern polar region.

With an update after 19 years, which includes improvements to signal reception and on-board data processing, the ESA said MARSIS would be able to see beneath Mars' surface and its moon Phobos in greater detail.

This color-coded topographic image, created from data collected by Mars Express on April 25, shows part of the scarred landscape that makes up Aonia Terra, an upland region in the southern highlands of Mars.

“We wanted to push the instrument’s performance beyond some of the limitations required back when the mission began,” said Andrea Cicchetti, MARSIS Deputy Principal Investigator and Operation Manager at INAF.

Cicchetti noted that previous studies relied on a "complex technique" that stored a lot of high-resolution data and filled up the instrument’s on-board memory very quickly.

But with the new software, which discards unneeded data, MARSIS on-board software engineer Carlo Nenna said MARSIS may be switched on for five times as long and explore a much larger area with each pass.

The MARSIS radar instrument on Mars Express, used to detect features such as water beneath the surface of the Red Planet.

 

“The new software will help us more quickly and extensively study these regions in high resolution and confirm whether they are home to new sources of water on Mars," Nenna said. "It really is like having a brand new instrument on board Mars Express almost 20 years after launch.”