The latest, but probably not the last story of old software running in mission-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 doing well, recently had a major software update to improve its chances of discovering water there.
How do you update Windows 98 on a spaceship orbiting Mars? @esa does it for Mars Express, after 19 years. https://t.co/DRWtuaqo22 pic.twitter.com/xxkDz5GrL1June 22, 2022
Launched in 2003, the Mars Express and its MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding) water probe, of course, ran one of the most important operating systems of the time. Windows98.
And so we discovered that there is a computer that can orbit Doom, not so much because of the abundance of extraterrestrial life, but because it is the setting for id Software’s demon-destroying first-person shooter. Thank you Colonel Hadfield!
ESA’s blog on the subject doesn’t go into much detail, particularly regarding the frame rates we can expect from Doom on the Mars Express, and how big the screen is. It doesn’t even say whether the probe will keep Windows 98 and update its applications, or get a fuller upgrade — Windows Me, perhaps, or the version of Red Hat Linux preferred on International Space Station laptops.
We do know, however, that one of the favorite processors used by NASA is based on the Apple Mac G3 – it’s a single-core PowerPC 750 233MHz chip from the Bondi Blue iMac, and there are at least two of these roaming around Mars. in the form of the Curiosity and Perseverance robbers. Technically, it’s called a RAD750 because it’s radiation hard, and it’s also found in the Kepler and Fermi space telescopes. However, 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 25MHz 80486 CPU during a maintenance mission in 1999, replacing an 80386.
Therefore, we could be looking at 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 scientific orbiter, in addition to Doom and its first sequel.
Back to the software update, and it appears that the new code for the probe “includes a series of upgrades that improve onboard signal reception and data processing to increase the amount and quality of scientific data sent to Earth”.
“There are many regions near the south pole on Mars where we may have already seen signals pointing to liquid water in lower-resolution data,” said ESA Mars Express scientist Colin Wilson. “The new software will help us study these regions more quickly and comprehensively in high resolution and confirm whether they harbor new water sources on Mars. It really is like having a brand new instrument aboard Mars Express nearly 20 years after launch. ”
So it looks like Europeans will be the first to know if water, or a rampaging demon army, is discovered on that gleaming red dot in the night sky.