Mars Express orbiter to get code update after 19 years

And over millions of miles, too. Piece of cake!?


The software on ESA's Mars Express spacecraft is to be upgraded after nearly two decades, giving the orbiter capabilities to hunt for water beneath the planet and study its larger moon, Phobos.

Mars Express was launched on June 2, 2003, and was initially made up of two components: the Mars Express Orbiter and the Beagle 2 lander. Unfortunately, the lander failed to make contact with Earth after it was released and arrived at the surface of the Red Planet. It is presumed lost. The orbiter, however, is still working after 19 years in service, spinning around Mars.

Now, engineers at the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF), Italy, are revamping the spacecraft's software. The upgrade will allow the Mars Express Orbiter to continue searching for water locked beneath the Martian surface using its MARSIS radio-wave instrument and monitor the planet's closest satellite, Phobos, more efficiently. MARSIS is today operated by INAF and funded by the Italian Space Agency.

Specifically, according to ESA, the orbiter, which is millions of miles from Earth, will receive "a series of upgrades that improve signal reception and on-board data processing to increase the amount and quality of science data sent to Earth." It appears part of the update will streamline its processes and communications to reduce the information collected by the onboard sensors to just what's needed.

"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 on-board memory very quickly," Andrea Cicchetti, the MARSIS deputy principal investigator and operation manager at INAF, leading the upgrade, explained in a statement.

"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."

Mars Express will thus continue to look for signs of water near the Martian South Pole at high resolutions. Colin Wilson, a scientist working on the mission, said the software was "like having a brand-new instrument on board…almost 20 years after launch."

"The MARSIS radar on-board software upgrade demonstrates that it is possible to renew an entire mission," Cicchetti told The Register in a statement.

"I am not surprised at all that such a mission is still in flight after 19 years. I [have been] working on it every day since its launch, and I am sure that Mars Express will give us the possibility to make many other discoveries in the coming years that will help us to better understand our planet."

Mars Express was ESA's first planetary mission, and is the second oldest active spacecraft orbiting a planet other than Earth. The oldest is NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey. Pushing new software to such an old orbiter after so long is challenging, according to Carlo Nenna, an engineer at Enginium, an Italian IT consulting firm helping to roll out the upgrade.

"We faced a number of challenges to improve the performance of MARSIS," he said. "Not least because the MARSIS software was originally designed over 20 years ago, using a development environment based on Microsoft Windows 98!"

"The very old development environment (it was quite old already back in year 2000) required to set up a Windows 98 machine. I did this with a virtual machine in VirtualBox," he told The Register.

"Just finding a way to share files between host and guest machines was an hard task. Installing common things like a working web browser or a source code editor was difficult too. It took almost two months only to set up and fully validate the development environment."

The spacecraft carries seven instruments, including various cameras, spectrometers, and a radar altimeter to study Mars's atmosphere, climate, and geology. Mars Express was the first to spot signs of water ice and carbon dioxide ice on the planet, leading scientists to question whether it could have been habitable at some point. It also collected data that hinted at signs of methane, possibly forged in the hot furnace of volcanoes long ago.

Finally, the spacecraft orbiter has 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 the Earth's round Moon. ®

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