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Mars spaceship is finally updated from Windows 98 era software

Artist's rendering of Mars Express. The background is based on an actual image of Mars captured 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 gone on Earth, but the early years of the internet still live on on Mars. A Mars spacecraft runs software developed more than 20 years ago in a proprietary environment based on Microsoft Windows 98, and an upgrade is long overdue.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is Update it is Mars Express the orbiter’s MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ioniospheric Sounding) software, 19 years after the spacecraft’s launch. The MARSIS instrument, the first radar sounder to orbit another planet, helped discover evidence of water on Mars in 2018. MARSIS beams low-frequency radio waves toward the planet with a huge 131-foot-long (40-meter) antenna The Mars Express spacecraft orbits Mars.

MARSIS does all of this with heavily outdated software that has not been updated since the spacecraft was launched in June 2003. The software was developed in a Windows 98 based environment which will not work with the modern internet unless you jump through a lot of hoops. “After decades of fruitful science and a good understanding of Mars, we wanted to increase the instrument’s performance beyond some of the limitations required at the beginning of the mission,” Andrea Cicchetti, deputy principal investigator at MARSIS, who led the development of the upgrade, said in a expression.

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

“To study the most important features on Mars and its moon Phobos in general, we used to rely on a complex technique that stored a lot of high-resolution data and filled the instrument’s on-board 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 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 were previously detected in lower-resolution data. With MARSIS leaving its Windows 98 era behind Software will be able to probe these regions much more quickly using high-resolution data. To find out if Mars had liquid water, it’s crucial to know if the planet was ever habitable in its early history and if it could possibly have harbored some form of life.

Mars Express has worked hard over the past 19 years, with the spacecraft’s mission having been extended seven times to date. 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 is expecting greater things from this retro orbiter. “It really is like having a brand new instrument onboard Mars Express almost 20 years after launch,” Cicchetti said.