The Mars Probe Still Using Windows 98

Jamie Kavanagh
July 5th, 2022

While not technically the security news you’re used to from us, this is too good a discussion to miss out on. Did you know the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express spacecraft uses a Windows 98-based operating system?

If you remember working with Windows 98, which I do, you’ll remember what a security nightmare it was.

It required numerous third-party programs to help protect it: a firewall, antivirus software, and malware scanner, maybe even more!

Mars Express spacecraft and Win 98

Now we learn that the Mars Express spacecraft got all the way to Mars while using Win 98 without it crashing or being hacked - quite the feat indeed!

What’s more, the ESA, or specifically the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF) in Italy, are planning their own over-the-air update to upgrade the camera.

Air is technically incorrect for something in space, but you get the idea.

The upgrade is apparently targeting the craft’s camera which is being used to try to identify water on Mars. It will help improve the level of detail the camera is capable of, giving us a much better view of Mars and what makes up the surface.

According to ESA, The Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding (MARSIS) is the equipment getting the update. It sends radio waves down into the ground using an antenna to help detect what’s underneath. It’s a bit like ground penetrating radar, where the waves reflect back of different elements in the ground, giving us a picture of what’s there.

Andrea Cicchetti, the MARSIS deputy principal investigator and operation manager at INAF, gave the following statement:

"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. 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.”

Living with Windows 98

Living with Windows 98 was no easy task back when it was the main OS from Microsoft. It was a full time job keeping it running and secure, a job which I don’t imagine has gotten any easier 24 years later.

It’s surprising that a spacecraft is using such old technology, and something as flaky as Win 98, but they must have made it work somehow as it’s on Mars and working fine.

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