Mars rover to get a long-distance memory wipe and reformat

NASA aims to correct a series of problems with the Opportunity rover's memory by giving it a reformat from far, far away.

Mars rover
An artist's representation of NASA's Mars rover. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA is about to do a task that many a sysadmin has tried before -- it just happens to be doing it from a distance of well over 100 million miles. The Mars Opportunity rover, Curiosity's older sibling, has been having some memory problems lately, requiring increasingly frequent resets that have slowed the rover down while doing all its cool scientific tasks (like examining clay minerals and seeing its shadow).

The space agency has had enough of these resets after performing over a dozen in August alone. "Worn-out cells in the flash memory are the leading suspect in causing these resets," says John Callas, project manager for NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Project. While it sounds like a wipe is pretty serious memory surgery, the rover has stored critical software and sequences in other spots that won't be touched by the reformat.

Opportunity's flash memory behaves like other types of flash-memory devices we're all familiar with down here on Earth, including digital cameras and audio players.

NASA will first download anything useful from the flash memory and store it here on our planet. Then the rover will be placed in an operating mode that doesn't use the flash memory. The reformatting process will clear the memory and flag the bad cells to keep them out of use. Opportunity should be feeling quite a bit sharper once it's done.

The reformat is set to take place in early September. Perhaps what's most fascinating about all this is how NASA can be located 125 million miles away from the adventurous rover and still perform a memory reformat. Most people find it hard just to back up the data on their personal computers, but NASA is handling it from a distance that is almost unimaginable.

The operation should get Opportunity back on track so it can continue setting records, like driving further than any other off-Earth vehicle in history. Go, Opportunity, go.