June 7, 2022

Mars Express Spacecraft: Finally getting Windows 98 Upgrade 

The Mars Express spacecraft has been working for more than 19 years. European Space Agency (ESA) engineers are getting inclined for a Windows 98 upgrade on an orbiter circling Mars.

MARSIS, Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding device onboard has been using software created using Windows 98.

Thankfully for humankind and the Red Planet’s sake, the ESA isn’t elevating its systems to Windows ME. The MARSIS appliance on ESA’s Mars Express was vital in 2018 to uncover a vast subterranean aquifer of liquid water on Mars, the Red Planet.

This significant new software upgrade “will entitle it to see beneath the surfaces of Mars and its moon Phobos in more attributes than ever before,” according to the ESA. The agency initially launched the Mars Express into space in 2003 as its first mission to the Red Planet, and it has spent almost two decades researching the planet’s surface.

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MARSIS uses low-frequency radio waves that rebound off the surface of Mars to dig for water and study the Red Planet’s atmosphere. The instrument’s 130-foot antenna can dig around three miles below the exterior of Mars, and the software upgrades will improve the signal reception and onboard data processing to improve the quality of data sent back to Earth.

“We faced several challenges to improve the performance of MARSIS,” demonstrates Carlo Nenna, a software engineer at Enginium who is assisting ESA with the upgrade. “Not least because the MARSIS software was initially designed over 20 years ago, using a consequence environment based on Microsoft Windows 98!”

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The ESA and operators at the INAF, National Institute for Astrophysics, have depended on a technique to reserve lots of high-resolution data on the MARSIS instrument. Still, it fills up the onboard memory quickly. “By scrapping data that we don’t need, the new software permits us to switch MARSIS on for five times as long and analyze a much larger area with each pass,” says Andrea Cicchetti, a MARSIS operation manager at INAF. “The new software will allow us more quickly and broadly study these regions in high resolution and ascertain whether they are home to new water sources on Mars. It is like having a brand new instrument on board Mars Express almost 20 years after launch.”

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The ESA hasn’t detailed the exact software to which the MARSIS is being upgraded, but it’s doubtful the team has upgraded its CPU and allowed TPM 2.0 in the BIOS to get Windows 11 installed.

NASA is experiencing a mission by the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency named Mars Express, which has been investigating the atmosphere and shell of Mars from polar orbit since arriving on the red planet in 2003. The spacecraft carries a science payload derived partly from European mechanisms lost on the ill-fated Russian Mars ’96 mission and a communications relay to sustain lander missions.

The mission’s primary goal is to search for sub-surface water from orbit. Seven scientific tools on the orbiting spacecraft have guided rigorous investigations to help answer fundamental questions about the atmosphere, surface environment, geology, history of water, and potential for life on Mars. Instances of discoveries – still debated by scientists — by Mars Express are proof of recent explosive volcanism, glacial activity, and methane gas.

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Initially, Mars Express also maintained a small lander known as Beagle 2, named for the ship in which Charles Darwin set sail to investigate unchartered areas of the Earth in 1831. Unfortunately, the lander was lost on arrival in December 2003.

NASA’s involvement with the mission includes the joint development of a radar instrument named MARSIS – abbreviation for the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding – with the Italian Space Agency. MARSIS has already delivered information about features beneath the Martian surface, including layered deposits, buried impact craters, and deep underground water ice hints.

NASA’s involvement also coordinates radio relay systems to ensure that different spacecraft operate together, a hardware contribution to the energetic neutral atoms analyzer instrument, and backup tracking support from NASA’s Deep Space Network during critical mission phases.

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MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding) is a pulse-limited radar sounder, low frequency, and altimeter designed by the University of Rome La Sapienza and Alenia Spazio. The Italian MARSIS instrument, operated by the European Space Agency, is functional and orbits Mars as an agency for the ESA’s Mars Express exploration mission.

The MARSIS Principal Investigator is Giovanni Picardi from the University of Rome “La Sapienza,” Italy. It features ground-penetrating radar capabilities, using synthetic aperture plans and a secondary receiving antenna to isolate subsurface reflections. MARSIS recognized buried basins on Mars. MARSIS was financed by ASI (Italy) and NASA (USA).

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On May 4, 2005, Mars Express deployed the first of its two 20-meter-long radar booms for the MARSIS experiment. At first, the boom didn’t lock fully into place; however, revealing it to sunlight for a few moments on May 10 fixed the glitch. The second 20 m boom was deployed on June 14. Both 20 m booms were needed to build a 40 m dipole antenna for MARSIS to work; a less crucial 7-meter-long monopole antenna was deployed on June 17.

The radar booms were initially scheduled to be deployed in April 2004. However, it was delayed out of fear that the deployment could damage the spacecraft through a whiplash effect. Due to the delay, it was decided to split the four-week commissioning phase into two parts, with two weeks running up to July 4 and another two weeks in December 2005.

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The deployment of the booms was a critical and highly complex task, requiring practical inter-agency cooperation between ESA, NASA, industry partners, and public Universities.

MARSIS transmits a series of modulated chirps at frequencies between 1.8 and 5.0 MHz in subsurface sounding mode, with a 1 MHz bandwidth. It also emits chirps sweeping between 0.1 and 5.4 MHz when the ionosphere communicates. Depending on the method, the pulse width is 30, 91, or 250 μs, and the nominal Pulse repetition frequency is 130 Hz. Transmitted power is either 1.5 or 5 W.

A 2012 paper by the MARSIS team measured a difference between the dielectric constant of the northern and southern high-latitude regions. The material that fills the north basin is a lower-density material, which could be interpreted as evidence of an ancient north ocean.

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Using MARSIS data, 22 Italian scientists declared in July 2018 the discovery of a subglacial lake on Mars, 1.5 km under the southern polar ice cap and growing horizontally about 20 km, the first comprehended stable body of water on Mars.

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