NASA’s older, wiser, more experienced Mars rover, Opportunity, is suffering from bouts of amnesia. According to NASA project manager, John Callas, the elderly spacecraft keeps resetting itself, which the Opportunity team believes is an age-related fault. Imagine a kind of Groundhog Day scenario where the craft continuously resets its flash memory after it powers down.
There’s actually a very reasonable explanation for a somewhat complicated problem. Opportunity, like a typical computer, has two types of memory: Non-volatile and volatile; non-volatile is capable of remembering information even when Opportunity is powered down, which is ideal for long-term storage; volatile, however, isn’t capable of remembering this data once the rover is powered down. The problem here is that Opportunity’s non-volatile memory is failing, which means it’s having difficulty retaining information.
NASA said the problems are actually getting worse as Opportunity ages. In addition to completely resetting itself, the rover will stop communicating with the Opportunity team altogether. Next to its healthier, much younger brother, Curiosity, Opportunity has been exploring the Red Planet for more than a decade, so the technology is certainly old by today’s standards. However, NASA is used to using older technology—and actually prefers to in some instances—so the team isn’t giving up just yet.
According to Callas, the Opportunity team is going to attempt to hack the rover’s software so it will ignore the faulty part of its flash memory. It’ll take a few weeks to accomplish, but the team is cautiously optimistic. The initial goal was to have Opportunity explore Mars for only three months, so obviously the rover has far exceeded its life expectancy. It has since gone on to become an integral part of our understanding of the Martian planet.