New software takes a ride on the Mars Express

(WHTM) — It’s one of the most nail-biting, stomach-churning, blood-pressure-spiking tasks in technology — upgrading a computer to a new, “improved” operating system. Software creators do their best to make such jobs as easy as possible, but there’s never any certainty that things will go right when you click the “update” button. Will the upgrade crash the computer? Will a crash make it impossible to go back to the old system? Will the improved upgrade render some of your most important peripherals unusable? No doubt about it, upgrading an operating system is a stressful job.

Now imagine you’re trying to upgrade a computer that’s over 20 years old and has never been updated.

Now imagine that computer is orbiting Mars.

That was the task facing engineers at the European Space Agency. In a recent press release, the agency announced that they upgraded software for an instrument on their Mars Express spacecraft.

The ESA’s first mission to the Red Planet, Mars Express was launched 19 years ago on June 2, 2003, and has, to quote the release, “spent almost two decades studying Earth’s neighbor and revolutionizing our understanding of the history, present and future of Mars.”

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The upgrade is for MARSIS, the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding instrument carried on the Mars Express spacecraft. MARSIS beams low-frequency radio waves towards the planet with a 133-foot-long antenna. A lot of waves bounce off the planet’s surface, but enough penetrate the crust to reflect off boundaries between layers of materials like ice, soil, rock, and water below the surface. Scientists use the reflected signals to build up a map of the subsurface structures to depths of a few miles. In 2018, MARSIS signals proved that liquid water exists on Mars below the surface.

Artist’s impression of water under the martian surface. If underground aquifers like that
really do exist, Mars Express has a good chance of finding them. The implications for
human exploration and eventual colonisation of the red planet would be far-reaching.

Illustration by Medialab, ESA 2001

The MARSIS radar instrument on ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft is used to detect features such as water beneath the surface of Mars. It recently received a software upgrade that substantially improves its scientific performance. 
In this graphic, you can see the region on the surface of Mars studied using MARSIS during one pass over the region of Lunae Planum.
The software upgrade reduces the rate at which the instrument’s onboard data storage fills up, allowing it to be switched on for much longer at a time and gather data on a much larger region with each pass.
The area that could be studied during one use of the instrument before the upgrade can be seen on the right. The area that can be studied during one use now is on the left.

INAF – Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica

The upgrade to MARSIS software will allow it to see beneath the surfaces of Mars in greater detail. It replaces software designed over 20 years ago, based on Microsoft Windows 98. (The press release does not specify whether the new software is Windows-based.)

The upgrade also improves data handling and storage. The memory capacity of MARSIS tended to top off quickly because of the high-resolution imaging. The new software streamlines data collection, allowing the spacecraft to collect information five times as long during a single pass. ESA Mars Express scientist Colin Wilson said, “It really is like having a brand new instrument on board Mars Express almost 20 years after launch.”