Software upgrade for a 19-year-old Martian water observer

Activation and maintenance

June 21, 2022

In short

The MARSIS tool is on ESA Mars Express spacecraftknown for his role in detection of signs of liquid water on the Red Planetgets a major software upgrade that will allow it to see beneath the surfaces of Mars and its moon Phobos in more detail than ever.

The Mars Express was ESA’s first mission to the Red Planet. Launched 19 years ago, on June 2, 2003, the orbiter spent nearly two decades studying its neighbor Earth and revolutionizing our understanding of the history, present, and future of Mars.


MARSIS – water of the Red Planet

Advanced radar for Mars for underground and ionospheric drilling (MARCIS) instrument of the Mars Express was crucial in the search for and detection of signs of liquid water on Marsincluding an alleged 20 by 30 km saltwater lake buried below 1.5 km of ice in the South Polar Region.

Operated by National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF), Italy, and fully funded by Italian Space Agency (ASI), MARSIS sends low-frequency radio waves down to the planet using its 40-meter antenna.

Impression of the artist from the water under the Martian surface

Most of these waves are reflected from the planet’s surface, but significant amounts pass through the crust and affect the boundaries between layers of various materials below the surface, including ice, soil, rock and water.

By studying the reflected signals, scientists can map the structure below the surface of the Red Planet to a depth of several kilometers and study properties such as the thickness and composition of its polar ice caps and the properties of volcanic and sedimentary rock layers.

From Windows 98 to Mars 2022

“After decades of fruitful science and a good understanding of Mars, we wanted to go beyond the instrument beyond some of the limitations required when the mission began,” said Andrea Chicketti, PI’s deputy PI and MARSIS operations manager at INAF, who is leading the development. on the superstructure.

“We have faced a number of challenges to improve MARSIS’s performance,” said Carlo Nena, MARSIS’s on-board software engineer. Enginiumwho performs the upgrade. “Not least because the MARSIS software was originally designed more than 20 years ago using a development environment based on Microsoft Windows 98!”

The new software was co-designed by the INAF team and Carlo and is now being implemented on ESA’s Mars Express. It includes a series of upgrades that improve signal reception and on-board data processing to increase the quantity and quality of scientific data sent to Earth.

Software upgrade allows MARSIS to run five times longer and explore a much larger area with each pass

“Before, to study the most important features of Mars and study its Phobos moon in general, we relied on a sophisticated technique that stored a lot of high-resolution data and filled the instrument’s built-in memory very quickly,” he says Andrea.

“By discarding 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.”

“There are many regions near the South Pole of Mars where we may have already seen signals showing liquid water in lower-resolution data,” added Colin Wilson, a scientist at ESA Mars Express.

“The new software will help us more quickly and thoroughly explore these high-resolution regions and confirm whether they are home to new sources of water on Mars. It’s really like having a brand new instrument on board the Mars Express almost 20 years after launch. “

The Martian workhorse

Old enough to vote in many places on Earth, Mars Express continues to provide incredible science, while remaining one of ESA’s cheapest missions to fly.

“Mars Express and MARSIS are still very busy,” said James Godfrey, Mars Express space operations manager at ESA’s ESOC Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany. “The team did a great job of designing the new software, maximizing its impact while keeping patches as small as possible, helping us continue to get the most out of this veteran spacecraft.”

Learn more about the other new scientific and operational activities that Mars Express has recently activated on Mars Express blog.

Mars Express continues to capture stunning images of the Red Planet 19 years after the launch

MARSIS was developed by the University of Rome, Italy, in partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The INAF team recognizes the support of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) through the ASI-INAF 2019-21-HH.0 agreement.

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