Much like our old desktop computers, the electronic brains of aging planetary rovers need to be reformatted every once in a while. That’s exactly what NASA has in mind for Opportunity, the Energizer Bunny of planetary travellers, which is about to get its flash memory reformatted according to NASA mission controllers.
The plucky, dinner table-sized robotic explorer has been buggying around the dusty surface of the Red Planet for ten years, sending back awe-inspiring images and data about an ancient wet environment on Mars.
Its longevity has been a shock to everyone, because the solar-powered robotic explorer was designed to last only three months. In large measure, its endurance has been due to ongoing winds blowing away dust which regularly accumulates on the surface of its solar panels. These natural cleaning events allow it to get enough power to continue humming along.
As a result, Opportunity has even outlasted its robotic twin. Spirit bit the ruddy dust after six years of trekking across the alien landscape, when it got stuck in a sand dune and slowly ran out of power during the long, frigid Martian winter. Temperatures on the surface of Mars during the height of summer near the equator can reach a balmy 20 C at midday, but overnight temperatures in winter can sink down to a mind-numbing - 70 to -100 C. That’s even chilly for us hearty Canadians!
Spirit had the same reformatting done successfully 5 years ago – however this is the first fresh install on its twin.
The last few months has seen continuing series of frustrating computer resets on Opportunity’s onboard computer which has stymied scientific exploration efforts tremendously. Currently, the rover is exploring the 14-mile wide crater Endeavour, where it has discovered rocks rich with veins of what looks like gypsum. This excites researchers because the presence of gypsum would point to an ancient past filled with neutral pH water – an environment suitable for life.
But for now these amnesia events have led the agency to resort to a complete format and restore of the rover’s system.
"Worn-out cells in the flash memory are the leading suspect in causing these resets," said John Callas, the manager of the Mars Exploration Rover Project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a press statement.
Before they send the format command, NASA plans on backing up all onboard data, just in case. And to make sure it gets done right, and that the amnesia-prone rover reliably gets all the instructions it needs to carry out, they are slowing down transmission data rates.
Mars currently sits about 200 million kilometres from Earth, so any radio signals – including the reformatting commands – will take 11.2 minutes to reach the rover. And it will take the same amount of time for controllers in California to receive the rover’s responses across the vast interplanetary chasm that separates our two worlds.
Just last month, Opportunity’s odometers indicated that it had passed the milestone of traveling 25 miles on Mars, breaking the off-Earth roving record set previously by the old Soviet lunar rover Linokhod 2 back in January 1973.
Hopefully in the next few days, once its memory has been wiped clean and restored, the rover will get back to the business of exploring the mysteries of the Red Planet.