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NASA Backing Up and Reformatting a Drive on Mars

Have you ever thought that setting up a backup system for your home or business was a bit of a hassle? Perhaps it took longer than you expected to get everything working or maybe things ended up going a bit over budget just to make sure your data was as secure as can be.

Well, prepare to hear about an IT task that was probably a whole lot more complicated. How about if you had to backup data that was over 125 million miles away? Those miles are travelled upwards, by the way, since we’re talking about data on Mars.

The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory is based in Pasadena, California and is in charge of handling the Mars exploration project. This is a mission that has sent the Opportunity Mars Rover to the red planet in order to find out more about it.

The Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004, alongside its twin rover Spirit. The missions were planned to last only three months, but they’ve gone on for much longer – Spirit was functioning for six years and Opportunity is still going.

In its old age the Opportunity has had to be reset many times, including a dozen in August 2014 alone. The resets are disadvantageous because it causes delays on the rover’s activities; recovery from incidents can take up to a day or two. Not too long for one off occurrences, but that time drags out when it’s continually happening.

The Opportunity makes use of flash memory, like a common memory stick or SSD does, because it can happily retain data even when not powered. However, individual cells within the memory can wear out from repeated use.

The number of resets the rover is undergoing has caused the NASA team to conclude that the Opportunity needs to have its flash memory reset.

“Worn-out cells in the flash memory are the leading suspect in causing these resets,” said John Callas, the project manager for NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Project. “The flash reformatting is a low-risk process, as critical sequences and flight software are stored elsewhere in other non-volatile memory on the rover.”

A similar operation was carried out five years ago on the Spirit and it’s believed that it can be carried out without a hitch. That’s a pretty incredible feat, all things considered!

In order to prepare for the operation, NASA has downloaded all useful data stored within the flash memory to storage on Earth. The rover will be switched to a mode that doesn’t use flash memory. Additionally, the rover’s communication sessions are being adjusted to use a slower data rate. It’s hoped that this will add resilience in case a reset needs to be carried out.

It was reported on September 8, 2014 that the operation was successful and the flash memory had been reformatted.

Next time you’re worried about backing up your data or reformatting a drive, just remember that the procedure probably won’t be as complicated as the one that NASA engineers have to carry out for their rover on Mars!


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