Mars Express was ESA’s first mission to the Red Planet. Launched 19 years ago on June 2, 2003, the orbiter has spent nearly two decades studying Earth’s neighbor and revolutionizing our understanding of Mars’ history, present and future.
MARSIS – water on the red planet
The Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding (MARSIS) instrument on Mars Express has been instrumental in searching for and uncovering signs of liquid water on Mars, including a suspected 20 by 30 saltwater lake km buried under 1.5 km depth. ice in the southern polar region.
Operated by the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF), Italy, and fully funded by the Italian Space Agency (ASI), MARSIS sends low-frequency radio waves towards the planet using its 40-meter antenna. long.
Most of these waves are reflected from the planet’s surface, but significant amounts pass through the crust and are reflected at the boundaries between layers of different materials below the surface, including ice, soil, rock, and water. .
By examining the reflected signals, scientists can map the Red Planet’s subsurface structure to a depth of a few kilometers and study properties such as the thickness and composition of its polar caps and the properties of volcanic rock layers and sedimentary.
From Windows 98 to March 2022
“After decades of successful science and having gained a good understanding of Mars, we wanted to push the performance of the instrument beyond some of the limits required at the start of the mission,” says Andrea Cicchetti, MARSIS Deputy PI and Lead of operations at INAF, which led the development of the upgrade.
“We faced a number of challenges to improve the performance of MARSIS,” says Carlo Nenna, Embedded MARSIS Software Engineer at Enginium, who is implementing the upgrade. “Particularly 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 jointly designed by the INAF team and Carlo, and is currently being implemented on Mars Express by ESA. It includes a series of upgrades that improve signal reception and onboard data processing to increase the quantity and quality of scientific data sent to Earth.
“Previously, to study the most important features of Mars, and to study its moon Phobos, we relied on a complex technique that stored a lot of high-resolution data and filled the instrument’s on-board memory very quickly,” explains Andréa. .
“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.”
“There are many regions near the south pole on Mars where we may have seen signals indicating liquid water in low resolution data before,” adds ESA Mars Express scientist Colin Wilson.
“The new software will help us study these regions faster and in greater detail at high resolution and confirm whether they harbor new water sources on Mars. It’s really like having a whole new instrument on Mars Express near 20 years after its launch.
The Martian draft horse
Old enough to vote in many places on Earth, Mars Express continues to deliver amazing science while remaining one of ESA’s lowest cost-to-fly missions.
“Mars Express and MARSIS are always very busy,” says James Godfrey, Mars Express spacecraft operations manager at ESA’s ESOC Mission Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany. “The team has done a great job designing the new software, maximizing its impact while keeping the fixes as small as possible, helping us continue to get the most out of this veteran spacecraft.”
Learn more about other new scientific and operational activities recently activated by Mars Express on the Mars Express blog.
MARSIS was developed by the University of Rome, Italy, in partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The INAF team acknowledges the support of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) through the ASI-INAF contract 2019–21-HH.0.