Nasa’s Mars Opportunity rover is having memory problems in its old age

Agency is preparing a digital lobotomy to help the aging rover

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The Independent Tech

The Opportunity rover is getting forgetful after having spent ten years exploring the surface of Mars.

The rover’s built-in memory is getting worn out with use, meaning that the rover can forget the data that it has stored when it powers down.

Opportunity began exploring the planet in 2004 and has stayed there ever since — after arriving with the plan of a three month long mission.

It uses two kinds of memory, called volatile and non-volatile. The non-volatile memory is like a hard drive in a computer and uses flash storage to store information that the rover needs to keep when it shuts down.

But the rover has been increasingly losing data and resetting itself unexpectedly. The reset is especially frustrating, because it means that when the computer wakes up again it isn’t sure what caused the reset, bringing the rover to a stop.

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Mars rover Opportunity's robotic arm as it stretched over the surface of Mars

And the problem has been getting worse. Mars exploration rover project manager John Callas, of Nasa, compared the problem to a disease.

“The problems started off fairly benign, but now they’ve become more serious — much like an illness, the symptoms were mild, but now with the progression of time things have become more serious,” Callas told Discovery News.

The issues increased until over Christmas the rover stopped communicating with Earth. It failed to execute instructions that were given to it — though it stayed in touch by sending a beep to its controllers.

But Nasa scientists think they might have found a solution to the problem. It appears to be one of the seven memory banks built into the rover that are causing the problems, so they hope that telling the rover to stick to the six working ones can help it get around the problems.

Scientists will have to write a new piece of software and then upload it to opportunity. That is expected to happen in a couple of weeks.

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