Home South pole ice Major upgrade for a 19-year-old Martian Water Watcher

Major upgrade for a 19-year-old Martian Water Watcher


Artist’s impression of Mars Express. The background is based on an actual image of Mars taken by the spacecraft’s high-resolution stereo camera. Credit: Spacecraft image: ESA/ATG medialab; March: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

The MARSIS instrument of the European Space Agency " data-gt-translate-attributes="[{" attribute="">March The Express spacecraft, famed for its role in finding signs of liquid water on the Red Planet, is receiving a major software update that will allow it to see beneath the surfaces of Mars and its moon Phobos in greater detail than ever before .

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 was crucial in searching for and uncovering signs of liquid water on Mars, including a suspected 20 by 30 km (12 by 19 mile) lake ) of salt water buried under 1.5 km (0.9 miles) of ice in the south 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-long (131 feet long) antenna.

Water under the Martian surface

An artist’s impression of the water under the Martian surface. Credit: Illustration by Medialab, ESA 2001

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.

MARSIS Software Upgrade

The MARSIS radar instrument on ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft is used to detect features such as water beneath the surface of Mars. It recently received a software upgrade that dramatically improves its scientific performance.
In this graphic you can see the region of the surface of Mars studied using MARSIS during a pass over the Lunae Planum region.
The software upgrade reduces the rate at which the instrument’s on-board data storage fills up, allowing it to be turned on much longer at a time and collect data over a much larger region with each pass.
The area that could be studied when using the instrument before the upgrade is visible on the right. The area that can be studied during use is now on the left. Credit: INAF – Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica

“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,” says Andrea. .

“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.

Aonia Terra Topography

Mars Express continues to capture stunning images of the Red Planet 19 years after launch. This color-coded topographic image shows part of the scarred landscape that makes up Aonia Terra, a mountainous region in the southern highlands of Mars. It was created from data collected by ESA’s Mars Express on April 25, 2022. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

“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.”

MARSIS was developed by the University of Rome, Italy, in partnership with " data-gt-translate-attributes="[{" attribute="">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.