This Mars Orbiter Is Finally Getting A Software Update From Windows 98

Designing, building, and testing a spacecraft isn't cheap — not to mention the cost of launching it and sending it on a journey to another planet. That means once a spacecraft is in place, like the Mars Express spacecraft which is in orbit around Mars, it stays there for as long as possible, so scientists and researchers can get the most use out of it. Mars Express was launched in 2003 and is coming up to 20 years old, but it's still gathering useful data. Its software, however, is pretty ancient by this point, so recently the European Space Agency (ESA) gave it an upgrade.

One of Mars Express' instruments for measuring the planet's surface and subsurface is called the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding, more commonly referred to as MARSIS. The team in charge of the instrument from the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF) in Italy decided it was time for an update — though this wasn't easy because the software running the instrument was so old.

"We faced a number of challenges to improve the performance of MARSIS," says the person in charge of the instrument upgrade, Carlo Nenna. "Not least because the MARSIS software was originally designed over 20 years ago, using a development environment based on Microsoft Windows 98!" Nenna's team was able to design new software that will improve the performance of the instrument, including better signal reception and faster data processing. This will allow the instrument to collect more science data in longer passes.

Studying Mars using radio waves

The MARSIS instrument works by firing low-frequency radio waves at the surface of Mars. Some of these waves bounce off the surface, while others travel deeper — and some of these bounce off layers below, like ice or rock. This lets scientists get a view of what is beneath the Martian surface without having to actually visit the surface or dig anything up. This instrument is particularly useful for looking for signs of water on Mars. There isn't any liquid water on the surface of Mars, but there is thought to be water beneath the surface, like large saltwater lakes beneath the ice at the planet's south pole. This was one of Mars Express' major findings back in 2018.

Finding water is important for two reasons: firstly because it's a useful resource for any future humans who might visit the planet, and secondly because it could help pinpoint locations on Mars where there could once have been life. With its upgrades, Mars Express will now be able to investigate signals from liquid water beneath the surface in more detail. "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," said Colin Wilson, an ESA Mars Express scientist. "It really is like having a brand new instrument on board Mars Express almost 20 years after launch."