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NASA plans memory reformat for Opportunity Mars rover

This simulated view of Opportunity shows a computer-rendered model of the rover superimposed on real Martian terrain imaged by her cameras. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This simulated view of Opportunity shows a computer-rendered model of the rover superimposed on real Martian terrain imaged by her cameras. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Tuesday, September 2, 2014, 3:07 PM - After a dozen computer resets in just the past month, it's clear that NASA's Opportunity rover is suffering some problems that require the help of an administrator. To prevent these problems from getting worse, the team here on Earth will perform a 200 million kilometre remote fix, instructing the rover to reformat her flash memory cells.

"Worn-out cells in the flash memory are the leading suspect in causing these resets," John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who is project manager for the Mars Exploration Rover Project, said in a statement.

The process, which will occur sometime early this month, is very similar to performing a memory reformat for your standard home computer. The scan will go through the memory, cell by cell, identifying those that are functioning properly and flagging those that aren't, so that the rover will only use those functional cells to store information going forward.

Pancam panorama shot by Opportunity on August 10, 2014 (Sol 3749). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Reformatting the memory of a home computer often results in the loss of all the information on the drive, however this apparently won't be a danger for the rover.

"The flash reformatting is a low-risk process, as critical sequences and flight software are stored elsewhere in other non-volatile memory on the rover," Callas said.

Since it's only her flash memory, which is used to store images and data that isn't crucial to the operation of the rover, the team can simply download what Opportunity currently has stored, then perform the reformat secure in the knowledge that her other functions won't be affected.

Opportunity's twin, Spirit, underwent a similar memory reformat after only a few weeks on the Martian surface, back in January/February of 2004. Afterwards, she apparently suffered no further problems with her flash memory, right up until the point - over six years later - when she stopped responding to her team here on Earth. This will be the first memory reformat for Opportunity.

With these resets plaguing the rover lately, and each requiring a day or two to bring the her back online, it's meant a significant amount of lost time for the team's investigations of Endeavour Crater - an expansive impact crater on Mars that Opportunity has been investigating since late 2011. It may take a few days, at least, to complete, but once the rover has been able to isolate the bad cells in her memory, she should be good-to-go for continuing her exploration of the Red Planet.

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