The Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Exploration (MARSIS) instrument on the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express spacecraft will receive a major software upgrade to increase its capabilities. Mars Express was ESA’s first Mars mission, launched on June 2, 2003, running Windows 98. It is equipped with the MARSIS instrument that has found signs of liquid water on the Red Planet. Operated by the Italian National Astronomical Institute (INAF), MARSIS uses a 40-meter antenna to send low-frequency radio waves to Earth. While most of these waves bounce off the Martian surface, some manage to penetrate and bounce back off interlayer boundaries and boundaries of dissimilar materials such as rock, water, and ice.

The scientists then study the reflected signals, which they can use to map the structure of the planet below the surface. It allows them to study the thickness, composition and other properties of materials that exist several kilometers below the Earth’s surface.

Now, scientists are ready to upgrade MARSIS’ software to make it more efficient at exploring the planet and its moon Phobos and sending back detailed information.

“After decades of fruitful science and a deep understanding of Mars, we wanted to push the performance of the instrument beyond some of the constraints required at the start of the mission,” said Andrea Cicchetti, MARSIS Deputy PI and INAF Operations Manager, who is leading the development upgrade.

The upgrade will increase the speed of MARSIS’ signal reception and to send better quality and more data to Earth. Andrea shared that earlier they used a sophisticated technique to study the characteristics of Mars and Phobos. However, it is used to store high-resolution data and occupies the instrument’s onboard memory.

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“By throwing away data we don’t need, the new software allows us to turn on MARSIS five times as long and explore a larger area with each pass,” adds Andrea. The new software will allow scientists to better analyze some areas of Mars’ south pole where they have seen signs of liquid water through low-resolution data.

“It’s really like putting a whole new instrument on Mars Express nearly 20 years after it launched,” he added.

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