Major Upgrade for 19-Year-Old Martian Water-Spotter


Mars Express Spacecraft

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; Mars: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

The MARSIS instrument on the European Space Agency’s discovery of signs of liquid water on the Red Planet, is receiving a major software upgrade that will allow it to see beneath the surfaces of Mars and its moon Phobos in more 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 almost two decades studying Earth’s neighbor and revolutionizing our understanding of the history, present, and future of Mars.

MARSIS – Water on the Red Planet

The Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding (MARSIS) instrument on Mars Express was crucial in the search for and discovery of signs of liquid water on Mars, including a suspected 20-by-30 km (12-by-19 mile) lake of salty water buried under 1.5 km (0.9 miles) of 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 down towards the planet using its 40-meter-long (131-foot-long) antenna.

Water Under Martian Surface

Artist’s impression of 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 travel through the crust and are reflected at boundaries between layers of different materials below the surface, including ice, soil, rock, and water.

By examining the reflected signals, scientists can map the structure below the surface of the Red Planet to a depth of a few kilometers and study properties such as the thickness and composition of its polar ice caps and the properties of volcanic and sedimentary rock layers.

From Windows 98 to Mars 2022

“After decades of fruitful science and having gained a good understanding of Mars, we wanted to push the instrument’s performance beyond some of the limitations required back when the mission began,” says Andrea Cicchetti, MARSIS Deputy PI and Operation Manager at INAF, who 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 substantially improves its scientific performance.
In this graphic, you can see the region on the surface of Mars studied using MARSIS during one pass over the region of Lunae Planum.
The software upgrade reduces the rate at which the instrument’s onboard data storage fills up, allowing it to be switched on for much longer at a time and gather data on a much larger region with each pass.
The area…



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