NASA closing on fix for Opportunity rover's 'amnesia'

Robot explorer crests Cape Tribulation crater and uses RAM alone for new selfie

Opportunity's View from Atop 'Cape Tribulation': Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA says it's close to a fix for the flash memory problems plaguing the plucky Opportunity rover, which is now nearing its eleventh year of Martian trundling.

The problems surfaced last year and created a form of amnesia that NASA boffins decided was caused by one of seven memory banks aboard the rover.

The good news is that the flaws appear to be repairable and haven't stopped the robotic explorer from doing its job, namely exploring the red planet and sending some pictures.

The image below was taken from the summit of a spot called Cape Tribulation, a crater rim 135 metres above the surrounding plains.

Opportunity's View from Atop 'Cape Tribulation': Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Opportunity's View from Atop 'Cape Tribulation'. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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Opportunity would usually store data in its flash memory and then beam it home at a convenient time. But at present Opportunity is shutting down during the Martian night to preserve energy, because its solar arrays now collect less than half the 900 watt-hours they were designed to gather. Even though flash can store data without being powered, NASA's trying to avoid use of the memory so it can “mask off the portion of the flash memory that has problems” and find a fix.

That fix, NASA says “requires a change to the rover's flight software”.

“The rover team is testing a software fix that would mask off the portion of the flash memory that has problems. This would allow resuming use of the rest of the flash memory,” NASA says.

The Jet Propulsion Lab's John Callas, project manager for Opportunity, added that “The fix for the flash memory requires a change to the rover's flight software, so we are conducting extensive testing to be sure it will not lead to any unintended consequences for rover operations."

Opportunity has 256MB of flash, so losing even a portion of it won't be welcome. Nor will the task of re-installing its OS, although NASA has done it before in 2007.

Whatever the outcome, the vehicle is a marvel: it was expected to last 90 Martian days, but has operated continuously since July 7th, 2003. ®

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