Good news from Mars: Rover Opportunity has been uploaded with new software and the memory issues that plagued the mission for several months have been fixed, for now.
After receiving new software to instruct the 11-year-old rover's computer to avoid storing data in a corrupt section of its memory, Opportunity successfully reformatted its flash memory on March 20.
VIDEO: Mars Rover Opportunity Nearing Marathon Finish Line
For the past few months, Opportunity's handlers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., have been operating the rover in a "no flash mode" - instead of storing mission data to its flash drive, the rover was being forced to save data to its volatile memory. Volatile memory acts as the RAM would on your PC or Mac; data is stored for short periods and, in the case of Opportunity, when powered down, the data was lost.
As Opportunity powers down during Mars night, "no flash mode" meant that all mission data needed to be up-linked to the orbiting NASA Mars Odyssey satellite before downtime, lest the data be lost.
This whole situation came about when, late last year, the aging rover began experiencing maddening "amnesia" events. The rover would shut down, reboot and become non-responsive. Mission data was lost and the rover's future began to look very bleak. But after some interplanetary troubleshooting, mission engineers tracked the issue down to a corrupt bank in Opportunity's flash memory.
ANALYSIS: What happened to Mars Rover Opportunity? Memory problems stymie veteran rover's progress
Now, new software instructs the rover to store data to 6 of the 7 flash memory banks, preventing use of the 7th corrupted bank. And, according to JPL, the upload and reformatting operation went to plan.
"Opportunity can work productively without use of flash memory, as we have shown for the past three months, but with flash we have more flexibility for operations," said Opportunity Project Manager John Callas of JPL. "The rover can collect more data than can be returned to Earth on any one day. The flash memory allows data from intensive science activities to be returned over several days."
And the fix couldn't have come at a better time.
Currently, Opportunity is investigating some curious rocks at the entrance to "Marathon Valley" and, according to orbital observations, clay minerals are abundant inside the valley. Clays are important to scientists understanding the Red Planet's ancient habitable potential as these minerals are formed in wet environments.
ANALYSIS: Rover Opportunity Has Found Some Odd Mars Rocks
Marathon Valley is so-called as Opportunity is about to cross an impressive milestone. Since landing on Mars in 2004, the six-wheeled rover is only 43 meters from completing the distance of an Olympic marathon on Mars (a marathon distance is 26.219 miles or 42.195 kilometers).
In December, Callas gave Discovery News an update on Opportunity's health and its amazing achievements, but he was realistic about the future.
"The rover has been amazingly healthy considering how much we've used it ... we thought the mobility system would have worn out a long ago but it's in great health," said Callas.
"But anything could fail at any moment. 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. So we're always cautious that something could happen."
Today, however, after surpassing 11 years of its planned 3-month primary mission, Opportunity will live to see another day, soon to become the first mission to complete a marathon on another world.
For the full interview with Callas, read "Mars Rover Opportunity Suffers Worrying Bouts of ‘Amnesia.'"