NASA plans lobotomy for forgetful Mars rover

One of NASA's Martian rovers is facing the indignities of old age, with the hard-working explorer suffering robot amnesia that has led to data loss and even persistent system crashes. The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has put in more than a decade of overtime on the red planet, well-exceeding the initial project goals. However, vital components like the flash memory used to store mission data are feeling their age, forcing NASA to think creatively to stop the rover from forgetting entirely why it's on Mars and blacking out completely.

Problems were first spotted by mission control when data was being inexplicably lost during periods where the rover shut down overnight. In theory, the day's data should have been shifted from volatile RAM to flash storage, and then beamed up to the Mars Odyssey satellite when the rover woke back up.

In practice, however, there was no data to beam back when the rover resumed its work.

The issue escalated over the holidays, when Opportunity ceased communicating with NASA altogether. That kickstarted a more intensive bout of troubleshooting, at which point engineers figured out it was one of the seven banks of flash storage that was to blame.

Flash memory, as anybody with an aging memory card for their camera might have realized, doesn't live forever. In fact, it has a certain lifespan of writes and rewrites, and it's that which had caused Opportunity's glitches.

Onboard systems spotted the seventh bank failing, and thus didn't bother shifting data from RAM to flash. As a result, when the power cycled overnight, the rover lost data from the day's findings and then eventually got itself into a reboot cycle, ignoring mission command in the process.

The other six banks, NASA tells Discovery News, are healthy, and the fix in the works is relatively straightforward: tell Opportunity to simply use the functional banks and to ignore the broken one.

That software patch is expected to be beamed to Mars sometime in the next few weeks, effectively cutting away a seventh of the rover's memory.

VIA Discovery News