Mars Opportunity rover has been studying Mars for over a decade, but according to NASA the spacecraft is beginning to experience bouts of mental fatigue. Much like a person as they age, computers often become forgetful as they age. This forgetfulness manifests itself as rebooting or memory loss. The Opportunity rover is a computer, and ultimately it has the same problems and issues that any other computers experience as they get older.
Since the issue revolves around memory, it can be explained simply like this: Computers have two types of memory. There is volatile and non-volatile memory. The non-volatile memory is the kind of memory that is less problematic for most computers than the volatile memory. Non-volatile memory is the memory that allows computers to remember things even when the computer itself is powered down, while volatile memory is just that. It’s volatile because it’s short term memory that is stored in the computer while it’s turned on.
Ultimately, the issue plaguing this machine is that the volatile memory is continually being reset when the computer reboots. It causes the computer to not remember things that are crucial to the running of the machine and allows it to communicate with NASA. This is also referred to as flash memory.
However, the problems haven’t been limited to failing memory within the Opportunity’s system. In fact, it’s periodically began halting communicating altogether with the Opportunity team. This though is something that has begun to concern NASA – but at the same time, they have reserved optimism with regards to getting those issues in order before the craft becomes a lost cause.
That said, John Callas of the NASA Opportunity team pointed out that they would be attempting to hack the system of Opportunity in an effort to make the computer overlook the memory and resetting issues. That though is going to take a few weeks, and it’s unclear how successful that will be. NASA representatives are optimistic, but they’re cautious in their assessment as well due to the fact that the computers onboard Opportunity are significantly older, and thus more susceptible to issues like this. The Opportunity rover has done some great things on Mars, and far outlived what NASA believed would be its “lifespan” around Mars.