Mars Probe running the operating system developed under Windows 98 receives a software update in space

The latest, but probably not the last, story of old software running in critical operations comes to us via the Guitar Playing Twitter feed Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. The European Space Agency’s Mars Express probe, currently in orbit around the red planet and which is doing very well, recently received a major software update to increase its chances of discovering water there.

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Launched in 2003, the Mars Express and its MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding) water probe naturally had software developed using one of the leading operating systems of the time – Windows 98.

And that’s how we discovered there’s a computer that’s probably capable of running Doom in orbit above Mars, notable not so much for its abundance of alien life as for being the setting for the shooter. fiendish first-person shooter from id Software. Thank you, Colonel Hadfield!

ESA’s blog on the subject doesn’t go into great detail, particularly regarding the frame rates we might expect from Doom on the Mars Express, or its screen size. “Particularly because the MARSIS software was originally designed more than 20 years ago, using a development environment based on Microsoft Windows 98! “, we read on the blog.

We do know, however, that one of NASA’s favorite processors is based on the Apple Mac G3 – it’s a single-core 233 MHz PowerPC 750 chip from the iMac Bondi Blue, and there are at least two on Mars in the form of the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers. Technically it’s called a RAD750 because it’s radiation resistant, and it’s also found in Kepler and Fermi space telescopes. However, the G3s weren’t known for their ability to run Windows 98, so for the X86 kit we have to look to the Hubble Space Telescope, which received a 25 MHz 80486 processor during a maintenance mission in 1999 , replacing an 80386.

Therefore, we could envision there being at least a Pentium 90 on the Mars Express, which opens up the possibility of playing Wing Commander Prophecy or maybe even Ultima 7 on the Science Orbiter, alongside Doom and its first sequel.

Back to the software update, and it looks like the new probe code “includes a series of upgrades that improve signal reception and on-board data processing to increase the quantity and quality of scientific data sent on earth”.

“There are many regions near the south pole on Mars where we may have seen signals indicating liquid water in low-resolution data before, said 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.

So it looks like Europeans will be the first to know if water, or an army of rampaging demons, is discovered on this glowing red dot in the night sky.

Update 06/23/2024: Clarified operating system details.

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