The Mars Express Spacecraft, Last Remaining Windows 98 User, Is Finally Getting An Upgrade

The Mars Express Spacecraft, Last Remaining Windows 98 User, Is Finally Getting An Upgrade
The Mars Express. Image: ESA, Windows 98 logo, compiled by Zachariah Kelly/Gizmodo Australia

Did you know that the Mars Express spacecraft runs Windows 98? Well, it does, but not for much longer.

The European Space Agency is set to give the Mars Express an interstellar software update, bringing the operating system of the MARSIS instrument into the current year. The MARSIS instrument was famous for its discovery of liquid water on the red planet.

The Mars Express has run a modified version of Windows 98 since the beginning of its mission, over 19 years ago. Since the launch of Windows 98, there have been 9 different operating systems from Microsoft, including 2000, ME (yuck), XP, Vista (double yuck), 7, 8 (the most yuck), 8.1, 10 and the recent 11.

Satisfying every OS nerd in the world, The Verge’s Tom Warren made a terrific joke that I can’t help but repost: “Thankfully for humanity and the Red Planet’s sake, the ESA isn’t upgrading its systems to Windows ME.”

“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,” said MARSIS Deputy PI and Operational Manager at the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics), Andrea Cicchetti.

“We faced a number of challenges to improve the performance of MARSIS,” said Carlo Nenna, a MARSIS engineer and an on-board software engineer at Enginium.

“Not least because the MARSIS software was originally designed over 20 years ago, using a development environment based on Microsoft Windows 98!”

No, the Mars Express will not be getting Windows 11 either. God, imagine the bloatware.

Instead, the Mars Express will be getting a proprietary operating system. This operating system has been designed by the INAF team and Nenna.

And it’s not simply for the sake of Windows 98 being a decades-old operating system. The new software will actually enable new features on the spacecraft.

“Previously, to study the most important features on Mars, and to study its moon Phobos at all, we relied on a complex technique that stored a lot of high-resolution data and filled up the instrument’s on-board memory very quickly,” added Cicchetti.

“By discarding data that we don’t need, the new software allows us to switch MARSIS on for five times as long and explore a much larger area with each pass.

“The new software will help us more quickly and extensively study these regions in high resolution and confirm whether they are home to new sources of water on Mars. It really is like having a brand new instrument on board Mars Express almost 20 years after launch.”

Windows 98 is often thought of as one of the best PC operating systems, long before Microsoft started to fill their operating systems with internet-reliant services, tiles and widgets. Actually, it was one of the first operating systems designed with the internet in mind, though some may look back at it as an unnecessary Windows 95 refresh.

The update is being applied to the Windows 98-operating Mars Express spacecraft by the ESA right now.