The Mars Express spacecraft finally gets a Windows 98 upgrade

European Space Agency (ESA) engineers prepare for a Windows 98 upgrade on an orbiter orbiting Mars. The Mars Express spacecraft has been operational for more than 19 years, and the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding (MARSIS) instrument on board uses Windows 98-based software. Fortunately for humanity and the Red Planet, ESA isn’t no upgrade to Windows ME.

The MARSIS instrument on ESA’s Mars Express was key to the 2018 discovery of a vast underground aquifer of liquid water on the Red Planet. This major new software upgrade “will allow it to look beneath the surfaces of Mars and its moon in more detail Phobos than ever before,” according to ESA. The agency originally launched the Mars Express in 2003 as its first mission to the Red Planet and has spent nearly two decades studying the planet’s surface.

MARSIS uses low-frequency radio waves bouncing off the surface of Mars to search for water and study the Red Planet’s atmosphere. The instrument’s 130-foot antenna is capable of searching around three miles below the surface of Mars, and the software upgrades will improve onboard signal reception and data processing to improve the quality of data sent back to Earth .

The south pole of Mars as seen from Mars Express.
Image: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

“We faced a number of challenges to improve the performance of MARSIS,” explains Carlo Nenna, a software engineer at Enginium who is helping ESA with the upgrade. “Not least because the MARSIS software was originally designed over 20 years ago with a development environment based on Microsoft Windows 98!”

ESA and the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) operators have relied on a technique to store lots of high-resolution data on the MARSIS instrument, but it’s quickly filling up on-board storage. “By discarding data we don’t need, the new software allows us to turn on MARSIS five times longer and explore a much larger area with each pass,” says Andrea Cicchetti, a MARSIS operations manager at INAF. “The new software will help us study these regions faster and more comprehensively at high resolution and confirm whether they host new water sources on Mars. It really is like having a brand new instrument on board Mars Express almost 20 years after launch.”

ESA hasn’t detailed the exact software the MARSIS will be upgraded to, but it’s unlikely the team upgraded its CPU and enabled TPM 2.0 in the BIOS to install Windows 11. Right?