A new solution for the Mars Rover Opportunity flash memory problems

The Mars Rover Opportunity at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility in 2003 (photo NASA/JPL/KSC)
The Mars Rover Opportunity at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility in 2003 (photo NASA/JPL/KSC)

In the summer 2014 the problems to the flash memory of the Mars Rover Opportunity’s computer became serious, convincing NASA mission manager to format it to try to solve them. Unfortunately, that operation was insufficient despite being carried out again in early December 2014. For this reason, Opportunity is temporarily working in a limited way without using the flash memory and at NASA they’re preparing a more sophisticated solution.

The last few months have been complicated for the Mars Rover Opportunity because of the problems with its flash memory. As can happen with our normal PC, if its one detects reading errors there may be a crash in the operations and at that point it forces a computer reboot. In such cases, part of the work in progress may be lost and if it’s a scientific research on Mars that may mean the loss of invaluable data.

The solution of any computer problem of a robot which is working on another planet is likely to be very long and complex. In the case of the Mars Rover Opportunity’s problem, it was clear from the beginning that after more than ten years of work on Mars, its computer’s flash memory had started to become corrupt. Unfortunately, that was just the beginning of the task.

Without the use of flash memory, the Mars Rover Opportunity can’t save the data it’s gathering but must transmit them to Earth as long as it collects them. The consequence is that if the computer is switched off because the night comes, the data aren’t stored anywhere and those not yet transmitted are lost.

After formatting the flash memory the problems haven’t stopped so NASA engineers had to think of a more sophisticated solution. In essence, they identified which of the seven flash memory  banks contains the corrupt cell. Luckily the last bank is the damaged one and this will help to solve the problem.

In fact, the Mars Rover Opportunity will receive new commands that will force it to use only the first six memory banks. If the damage was in one of the other banks it would be required to further reduce those usable because the computer must use contiguous banks.

It will take a while before the new software is ready to be sent to the Mars Rover Opportunity but at NASA there is optimism. After spending almost 11 years on Mars, it keeps on working and if this new solution to its flash memory problems will work it will still be able to provide many important data for the research on the red planet.

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