Mars Express orbiter finally gets a software upgrade, 19 years later

The original software was built with tools based on Windows 98.

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Jon Fingas
June 24, 2022 2:54 PM
Mars Express orbiter render
Spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; Mars: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Think the computers at your office are overdue for an update? They probably don't compare to one of the European Space Agency's best-known spacecraft. The ESA is upgrading its Mars Express orbiter's MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ioniospheric Sounding) software 19 years after its June 2003 launch. For context, the original code was created using a toolset built for Windows 98 — there are computers in museums that are newer than Microsoft's OS.

The update promises to dramatically improve the Mars Express craft's efficiency. The initial approach gathered large amounts of high-resolution data that quickly swamped memory. With the new software, scientists can toss out unnecessary data. This lets MARSIS run for five times longer than before, and cover much wider swaths of Mars and Phobos in a given pass.

The improvement should help explore the subsurface levels of Mars and Phobos in much greater detail. Researchers hope the extra resolution will let them quickly confirm signals hinting at liquid water near Mars' south pole. In effect, the MARSIS revamp will make sure Mars Express can continue its mission. 

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Mars Express is most famous for discovering previous signs of liquid water on the Red Planet, but it's also known for capturing dramatic visuals of the martian landscape. While it won't necessarily make similar headlines as a result of the update, it should remain relevant where it might have become obsolete.

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