NASA initially planned for the Opportunity rover to spend three months on Mars, but after spending close to 10 years on the Red Planet, the robotic rover is aging and actually shutting down gradually as characterized by its periodic memory lapses. Opportunity rover continues to suffer from age-related memory problems and its engineers are planning […]
NASA initially planned for the Opportunity rover to spend three months on Mars, but after spending close to 10 years on the Red Planet, the robotic rover is aging and actually shutting down gradually as characterized by its periodic memory lapses. Opportunity rover continues to suffer from age-related memory problems and its engineers are planning to hack into its memory software as a way of fixing its amnesia problems.
The Opportunity rover keeps resetting its default memory incessantly as a way of handling its own memory problems, and this is affecting its ability to effectively communicate with Earth or pass down stored information after it wakes from sleep. But then its engineers believe the machine’s memory lapses are caused by faults within its flash memory.
Opportunity is a six-wheeled vehicle that has covered some 26 miles or 41.8 kilometers since its deployment to Mars some 10 years ago; but it must not be confused with Curiosity rover which landed on the surface of Mars in 2011.
According to John Callas, NASA’s project manager, hacking into Opportunity’s software would enable it to bypass the section of its faulty memory and use the good part. Like a computer system, the rover uses two types of memory systems – volatile and non-volatile.
The non-volatile memory works like a computer’s hard drive and remembers stored information even after powering down the machine for a long time; but the volatile memory works like a PC’s RAM or random access memory and is faster to access but requires power – so any stored information is wiped off the moment the machine loses its power or turns off.
So what the rover has been doing by resetting itself is to save telemetry data to its volatile memory as a result of the flash memory failing to store them. And this causes the stored information to wipe off when the machine powers down – causing loss of data. The engineers believe this problem is related to the aging of the robots hardware and software parts.
“So now we’re having these events we call amnesia” explained Callas. “Which is the rover trying to use the flash memory, but it wasn’t able to, so instead it uses the RAM…it stores telemetry data in that volatile memory, but when the rover goes to sleep and wakes up again, all [the data] is gone. So that’s why we call it amnesia – it forgets what it has done.”
And since the Opportunity has overstayed its usefulness and done with its projected mission on Mars, scientists believe it can shut down anytime and nearing the end of its useful life. “It’s like you have an aging parent, that is otherwise in good health – maybe they go for a little jog every day, play tennis each day – but you never know, they could have a massive stroke right in the middle of the night,” Callas said. “So we’re always cautious that something could happen.”
The engineers believe hacking into the rover’s software would enable it to ignore the faulty part of its flash memory, and rather write its information permanently on its healthy hardware memory.