Even on Mars, Windows 98 is now outdated
Mars Express’s MARSIS instrument will undergo a major software update that will allow it to better peer beneath the surface of Mars and its moon Phobos.
It’s been nineteen years since the launch of Mars Express, an unmanned space mission to the planet Mars. Meanwhile, the probe has been researching our closest neighbors for nearly two decades and revolutionized our understanding of the history, present, and future of the Red Planet. One small thing: the software that Mars Express Tools runs on is a bit outdated by now. Thus, the European Space Agency plans to make a series of upgrades that will significantly improve the performance of the orbiter.
The plan is to update the spacecraft’s MARSIS instrument. This instrument played an important role in discovering signs of liquid water on Mars. For example, Marsis spotted a suspected saltwater reservoir about 20 kilometers wide, buried under 1.5 kilometers of Antarctic ice.
How does MARSIS work?
MARSIS bombards the surface of Mars with a 40-meter antenna with low-frequency radio waves. Most of these radio waves are reflected from the surface. But large amounts travel through the crust and are reflected in deeper layers made up of various materials, including ice, soil, rock, and water. By examining these reflected signals, scientists can map the structure below the surface of Mars – down to several kilometers deep. In addition, this allows them to study certain properties, such as the thickness and composition of the polar caps and the composition of igneous and sedimentary rocks.
But MARSIS could gain some attention again after nearly twenty years of research. “After years of fruitful science, we want to improve the performance of the machine,” said Andrea Sechetti, who leads the software update.
However, this is not so simple yet. “We faced a number of challenges to improve the performance of MARSIS,” adds engineer Carlo Nina. “Not least because MARSIS was originally built over 20 years ago based on Microsoft Windows 98!”
In short, even on Mars, Windows 98 is now outdated. Therefore, MARSIS will undergo a major software update. This includes a series of upgrades that improve signal reception and data processing. This will greatly increase the quantity and quality of scientific data sent back to Earth. “Previously, we relied on a complex technology that stored a lot of high-resolution data,” Sechetti explains. As a result, the internal memory of the gadget quickly filled up. But from now on, we can get rid of data we don’t need right away. This allows MARSIS to take measurements five times longer and explore a much larger area in one go. “
The south pole of Mars
A software update will allow Mars Express to better peer beneath the surface of Mars and its moon Phobos. This is promising. For example, the team plans to subject the south pole of Mars for another inspection. “We’ve already seen signals that point to liquid water,” said Colin Wilson, a researcher at the European Space Agency. “Thanks to the new software, we can study these areas faster and on a larger scale at high resolution, in order to confirm whether water can indeed be found. It really looks as if Mars Express has been outfitted with a completely new instrument after nearly 20 years. “.
Despite the advancing age of Mars Express, the team believes the orbiter will still be around for a while. “Mars Express and MARSIS are still very busy,” said James Godfrey of the European Space Agency. “The team did a fantastic job designing the new program. This allows us to continue to get the most out of this experienced spacecraft.”
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