The venerable Mars Express spacecraft is getting new software from the European Space Agency (ESA) that will allow it to look beneath Mars and its moon Phobos in more detail than ever before.
Since December 2003, Mars Express has been in orbit around the Red Planet to study its atmosphere, photograph and map the planet and, most famously, search beneath the surface for evidence of water. The orbiter’s Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding (MARSIS) is now being upgraded, which in 2018 revealed evidence of a saltwater lake hidden under a mile (1.5 kilometers) of ice in the southern polar region.
MARSIS is operated by the Italian Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF). It uses a 40-meter-long antenna to bounce low-frequency radio waves off Mars and collect reflections from below the surface. Scientists can use these readings to try to distinguish between layers of material, such as ice, soil, rock, and water.
The updates improve signal reception and onboard data processing, meaning the instrument’s computer can discard unneeded data to free up memory. The new technique will increase the amount and quality of science data sent to Earth by MARSIS, potentially providing greater insight into intriguing areas than before.
“We faced a number of challenges to improve the performance of MARSIS,” said Carlo Nenna, the MARSIS onboard software engineer implementing the upgrade, in the statement. “Not least because the MARSIS software was originally designed over 20 years ago with a development environment based on Microsoft Windows 98!”
While the MARSIS team believes the upgrade work will be worthwhile, adapting the instrument’s software to the new scientific goals has been a challenge.
Now the scientists want to test the upgrade. “There are many regions near the South Pole on Mars where we may have already seen signals indicative of liquid water in lower-resolution data,” Wilson said in the statement. “The new software will help us study these regions faster and more comprehensively at high resolution and confirm whether they host new water sources on Mars.”
Summary of the news:
- Europe’s veteran Mars orbiter gets an instrument upgrade