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NASA to place a brick on Mars?

3 September 2014

When NASA's Opportunity rover first awoke on the surface of Mars there was joy and celebration back on earth.

Thanks to some superb engineering, fantastic science and perhaps just a pinch of luck, mankind had once again placed a semi-autonomous surface vehicle onto the red planet.

Perhaps more amazing than the safe deployment of Opportunity is the fact that even today, more than 10 years after its successful landing in 2003, the tiny vehicle is still going.

Neither the bitter-cold Martian winters nor the constant bombardment of the solar wind, nor the regular dusting of fine dust particles have been able to completely stop this craft from continuing its mission well beyond the originally planned span of 90 days.

But now there is a problem...

After more than a decade of constant read/write cycles, it appears as if the Flash memory onboard Opportunity is starting to get decidedly flaky.

Memory errors have been forcing resets of the onboard systems and the problem has now become so serious that resets every couple of days have become the norm and are seriously affecting the craft's ability to continue its tasks.

In true NASA style however... they have a plan!

Unfortunately, it's a risky plan (but then the best plans always are).

The boys at mission control are working on a way of performing a complete reformat of Opportunity's Flash memory -- an operation that is clearly fraught with danger.

Fortunately, such a reformatting operation is not without precedent. Opportunity's sister, Spirit, underwent several reformat operations before its ultimate demise as its Flash memory also became significantly degraded.

Of course we all know that any major operation such as the one planned has potential for devastating failure. What if the Rover fails to reboot? What if the reformat operation itself fails -- possibly leaving an even larger chunk of the memory unusable?

The boffins at NASA will have taken all these possibilities into account when making their decision to undertake the risky procedure and they have done as much as they can to mitigate the risks.

The first step is (of course) to back-up the entire contents of memory by downloading it back to earth. This must be the ultimate in off-site backups!

Then the communications system will be switched to a slower but more reliable mode so as to limit the chance of data-corruption.

And, when the system reboots, it will be in "safe mode", a configuration that does not rely on the newly formatted Flash memory to operate.

Finally, I suspect that all those involved at NASA will be falling back on that tried-and-tested technique of crossing their fingers and hoping -- that nothing will go wrong.

In the event that something does go wrong -- well I guess NASA will have planted the first "brick" on Mars.

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