Windows 98 is still used in space

19 years after the launch of the Mars Express mission, 24 years after the launch of Windows 98, an update is coming for the European research, which is still based on this legacy operating system.

This is probably the most likely place where Windows 98 is still running. Orbiting the planet Mars, tens of millions of kilometers from Earth, the European Mars Express probe is still operational. And among the tools the machine has deployed is MARSIS, a tool based on a Windows 98-based environment.

An embedded and customized operating system for Mars Express

If we are talking about Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding and MARSIS, short for Windows 98, it is because the instrument will receive a major update. Aim ? Obviously, increase the radar’s ability to detect the presence of liquid water on Mars and its moon Phobos, as well as below the surface.

To improve the performance of MARSIS, we had to overcome a number of challenges. “Awarded to European Space Agency Carlo Nenna, the embedded software engineer who attempted the upgrade.” Because MARSIS software was originally designed more than 20 years ago using a Microsoft Windows 98-based development environment. »

Mars_Express_artist_s_view_pillars
Artist’s impression of the Mars Express. // Source: ESA / D.Ducros

This reference to an operating system came as a surprise (though not infrequently: the Perseverance rover is equipped with a processor that was already present in the 1998 iMac G3). Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield Wrote June 22: How do I update Windows 98 on a spacecraft orbiting Mars? ESA is doing this for Mars Express 19 years later. »

Obviously, the update in question does not directly target Windows 98. To improve the quality of scientific observation, in this case improved signal reception, and in this case, it is the software components added to this platform that should benefit from it. built-in data processing. This will bring more data to astronomers.

The new software will help us examine these regions faster and more thoroughly in high resolution and confirm whether they harbor new water sources on Mars. Almost 20 years after its launch, it’s like owning a brand new instrument aboard the Mars Express. Said James Godfrey, the ship’s operations manager.

“How do I update Windows 98 on a Mars orbiting spacecraft? ESA is doing this for Mars Express 19 years later. »

Chris Hadfield

Windows 98 is an operating system that was released in June 1998 – hence the name – and was one of Microsoft’s biggest crops, especially the “Second Edition” that came a year later thanks to an update. The operating system has also become so popular that Microsoft has delayed its withdrawal date. The cutoff of support planned for 2003 was moved to 2004, then to 2006.

Mars Express was launched during this period. The project was approved in 1999 and finally left Earth in 2003. It has been tirelessly pursuing its scientific mission for nineteen years since it was placed in Mars orbit. According to the latest news, Mars Express should continue to operate until December 31, 2022. It can be extended though.

Contrary to what one might think, space exploration does not rely solely on technologies developed in-house. The industry also benefits from what the civilian industry produces in terms of equipment and software. We see this with Mars Express and Windows 98 acting as a platform. But we see this for many other components as well.

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Mars and several American orbiters.  // Source: Nasa Science Solar System Exploration screenshot