The Mars Express probe is best known for detecting liquid water beneath the Martian surface. But now, nearly two decades after its launch, Mars Express is gaining notoriety among nerds because of a software update. In astronaut Chris Hadfield’s words, “How do you update Windows 98 on a spaceship orbiting Mars?”
Space fans and computer dorks are excited to learn that Mars Express, which the European Space Agency (ESA) launched in 2003, runs software related to Windows 98. The ESA just updated this software to improve the spacecraft’s signal strength and ability to collect data, a preparatory step before Mars Express searches for water at the Red Planet’s south pole.
How do you update Windows 98 on a spaceship orbiting Mars? @esa is doing it for Mars Express, after 19 years. https://t.co/DRWtuaqo22 pic.twitter.com/xxkDz5GrL1
— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) June 22, 2022
To be clear, Mars Express does not run Windows 98. An instrument on the probe, called MARRIS, uses software that was made in a Windows 98-based development environment. So, Mars Express can probably run DOOM, but the ESA is stretching the truth a bit to put things in perspective—successfully updating this software was not an easy task!
The functional changes provided by this update are interesting. According to Andrea Cicchetti, MARSIS Deputy PI, the original MARRIS software “relied on a complex technique” to collect high-resolution data. But this technique filled the instrument’s onboard memory too quickly.
“By discarding data that we don’t need,” explains Cicchetti, “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 launched in 2003 and is almost two decades old. The fact that it’s still collecting useful data is amazing, and hey, this software update could lead to a major discovery at the Martian south pole.