Operating around Mars for nearly 19 years now, the Mars Express spacecraft is about to get a major update. The MARSIS instrument on the spacecraft that is looking for signs of liquid water on the Red Planet will get a major boost as the Windows 98 platform will be upgraded to Mars in 2022.
The update will enable the probe to see beneath the surface of Mars and its moon Phobos in more detail than ever before. Launched nearly 19 years ago in 2003, the orbiter has been studying Earth’s neighbour and revolutionising our understanding of the past, present, and future of Mars.
When designed, it was Windows 98 that was ruling the world of operating systems, and the Marsis spacecraft was designed using a development environment based on Microsoft Windows 98. However, with the nature and objective of the mission evolving, the European Space Agency plans to push the instrument’s performance beyond some of the limitations.
WHAT DOES MARSIS DO ON RED PLANET?
The Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding (MARSIS) instrument on Mars Express has been crucial in determining the presence of water on the alien world. It has been a key player in finding a suspected 20-by-30 km lake of salty water buried under 1.5 km of ice in the southern polar region.
MARSIS sends low-frequency radio waves down towards the planet using its 40-meter-long antenna. These waves are reflected from the planet’s surface, but significant amounts travel through the crust and are reflected at boundaries between layers of different materials below the surface, including ice, soil, rock, and water.
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. (Photo: ESA)
By examining these reflected waves and signals, scientists can map the structure below the surface of the Red Planet to a depth of a few kilometres and study properties such as the thickness and composition of its polar ice caps.
WINDOWS 98 UPDATE
The Mars Express team has said that they have been facing several challenges in improving the performance of Marsis. The solution is a new software update pushing the instrument from Windows 98 to Mars 2022 designed by the ESA. The new software includes a series of upgrades that improve signal reception and onboard data processing to increase the amount and quality of science data sent to Earth.
“Previously, to study the most important features on Mars, and to study its moon Phobos at all, we relied on a complex technique that stored a lot of high-resolution data and filled up the instrument’s onboard memory very quickly. By discarding data that we don’t need, the new software allows us to switch MARSIS on for five times as long and explore a much larger area with each pass,” Andrea Cicchetti, who led the development of the upgrade said in a statement.
The new software will allow scientists to more quickly and extensively study these regions in high resolution and confirm whether they are home to new sources of water on Mars.