Software for ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft is due to be updated after nearly two decades, giving the orbiter the ability to search for water beneath the planet and study its largest moon, Phobos.
Mars Express was launched on June 2, 2003 and initially consisted of two elements: the Mars Express orbiter and the Beagle 2 lander. Unfortunately, the lander failed to make contact with Earth after being released and arrived at the surface of the red planet. It is presumed lost. The orbiter, however, is still operating after 19 years of service, circling Mars.
Now engineers at the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF) in Italy are revamping the spacecraft’s software. The upgrade will allow Mars Express Orbiter to continue searching for trapped water beneath the Martian surface using its MARSIS radio wave instrument and to more effectively monitor the planet’s closest satellite, Phobos. MARSIS is now operated by INAF and funded by the Italian Space Agency.
Specifically, according to ESA, the orbiter, which sits millions of miles from Earth, will receive “a series of upgrades that improve signal reception and onboard data processing to increase the amount and the quality of scientific data sent to Earth”. It looks like part of the update will streamline its processes and communications to reduce the information collected by on-board sensors to what is needed.
“Previously, to study the most important features of Mars, and to study its moon Phobos, we relied on a complex technique that stored lots of high-resolution data and filled the instrument’s onboard memory very quickly,” said Andrea. Cicchetti, MARSIS Deputy Principal Investigator and Operations Manager at INAF, responsible for the upgrade, explained in a statement.
“By removing data we don’t need, the new software allows us to run MARSIS five times longer and explore a much larger area with each pass.”
Mars Express will therefore continue to search for signs of water near the Martian south pole at high resolution. Colin Wilson, a scientist working on the mission, said the software was “like having a whole new instrument on board…nearly 20 years after launch.”
“The MARSIS radar on-board software update demonstrates that it is possible to renew an entire mission,” Cicchetti said. The register in a report.
“I am not at all surprised that such a mission is still flying after 19 years. I [have been] has been working on it every day since launch, and I’m sure Mars Express will give us the opportunity to make many more discoveries in the years to come that will help us better understand our planet.”
Mars Express was ESA’s first planetary mission and is the second oldest active spacecraft in orbit around a planet other than Earth. The oldest is NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey. Pushing new software onto such an old orbiter after so long is a challenge, according to Carlo Nenna, an engineer at Enginium, an Italian IT consultancy that is helping roll out the upgrade.
“We faced a number of challenges to improve the performance of MARSIS,” he said. “Particularly because the MARSIS software was originally designed more than 20 years ago, using a development environment based on Microsoft Windows 98!
The spacecraft carries seven instruments, including various cameras, spectrometers and a radar altimeter to study the atmosphere, climate and geology of Mars. Mars Express was the first to spot signs of water ice and carbon dioxide ice on the planet, leading scientists to wonder if it might have been habitable at some point. He also collected data hinting at signs of methane, possibly forged in the hot furnace of volcanoes long ago.
Finally, the spacecraft’s orbiter provided astronomers with some of the most detailed images of Phobos. The Martian moon is shaped like a potato, with an uneven, pockmarked surface unlike Earth’s round moon. ®