The Mars Express spacecraft finally gets a Windows 98 upgrade


European Space Agency (ESA) engineers gear up for a Windows 98 upgrade on an orbiter orbiting Mars. The Mars Express spacecraft has been in service for over 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, the ESA is not. t upgrade to Windows ME.

The MARSIS instrument on ESA’s Mars Express was key to the discovery of a huge subsurface liquid water aquifer on the Red Planet in 2018. This major new software upgrade “will allow for subsurface exploration of Mars and its moon Phobos look in more detail than ever before,” according to the ESA† The agency originally launched the Mars Express into space in 2003 as its first mission to the Red Planet, and it has spent nearly two decades exploring 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 can search about three miles below the Martian surface, and the software upgrades will improve signal reception and onboard 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 more than 20 years ago in a development environment based on Microsoft Windows 98!”

The ESA and operators at the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) have relied on a technique to store a lot of high-resolution data on the MARSIS instrument, but the onboard memory is quickly filling up. “By throwing away data we don’t need, the new software allows us to power up MARSIS five times longer and explore a much larger area with each pass,” said Andrea Cicchetti, a MARSIS operations manager at INAF. “The new software will help us study these regions more quickly and comprehensively in high resolution and confirm whether they harbor new water sources on Mars. It really is like having a brand new instrument aboard Mars Express nearly 20 years after launch. ”

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