Mars Express has been studying the red planet for 19 years. The space probe is now to receive a software update to improve performance. The European space agency ESA sent its Mars Express spacecraft to Mars on June 2, 2003. Since then, the spacecraft has provided revealing data about the red planet. The software installed at that time was based on the Windows 98 operating system.
After more than 19 years, the probe is now to receive a software update in order, among other things, to obtain new data with better resolution from regions on the south pole of Mars that have already been examined, says ESA scientist Colin Wilson. Even the old data provide evidence of liquid water in many areas of the South Pole.
Better data despite little storage space
"The new software will help us study these regions faster and more comprehensively at high resolution and confirm whether they host new sources of water on Mars," explains Wilson, adding that it appears that Mars Express has "a brand new instrument on board".
The new software includes upgrades designed to improve onboard signal reception and data processing. This is intended to increase the amount and quality of scientific data sent to Earth at ESA.
The new software is intended to discard data that is not required, explains Andrea Cicchetti - responsible for the development of the software and deputy head of the Marsis project and operations manager at the Italian Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF). The acronym Marsis stands for Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding.
With the upgrade, the onboard memory can be relieved, which was very quickly full due to the previous technology. In addition, according to Cicchetti, the Marsis instrument can now stay on five times longer, allowing for a much larger area to explore.
Ancient technology gave us more knowledge about Mars
To get the most out of the veteran spacecraft, "the patches were kept as small as possible," says James Godfrey. He is the Mars Express Operations Manager at ESOC (European Space Operations Centre) in Darmstadt.
Through the Marsis instrument, the ESA research team was able to find signs of liquid water on Mars. This includes a suspected 20 by 30-kilometer lake of salty water in the southern polar region. It is said to be under a 1.5-kilometer thick layer of ice.
The spacecraft receives such data through a 40-meter-long antenna that sends low-frequency radio waves to the planet. While most radio waves bounce off the planet's surface, some penetrate the crust. These are only reflected when they encounter new layers of material.
The maps of the planetary structure are several kilometers deep and include data on the thickness and composition of the polar ice caps and properties of the volcanic and sedimentary rock strata. Perhaps the new software update can provide even more insightful information about the structure of Mars in the future.