NASA's Opportunity rover might have 'died' on Mars

The selfie taken by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover on January 15 at the "Rock Hall" drill site on the Red Planet's Vera Rubin Ridge. The past few months, however, have been concerning for the spacecraft as it hasn't communicated with NASA since falling asleep over six months ago.

In June 2018, NASA's Opportunity Rover entered hibernation mode after a massive sand storm blocked the sunlight from reaching the Mars explorer's solar panels. It hasn't woken up since. Now, in what might be a last-ditch effort to continue the Opportunity mission, NASA is sending commands to the rover in the hopes that it'll snap out of its funk. The new commands will be sent in the coming weeks and will address the issues that are preventing Opportunity rover from transmitting signals. According to the space agency, the Mars environment looks dustier than usual because of a dust storm now happening at that particular location.

Engineers were initially hopeful that Mars' "dust-clearing season", when increased winds could knock dust off of the rover's solar panels and allow it to recharge, would help bring Opportunity back online. In order to send commands to Opportunity, NASA uses the Deep Space Network, which includes three locations around Earth with giant antennas.

Meanwhile, Opportunity celebrated its 15th year anniversary exploring the Red Planet this month, becoming the longest-running Mars rover yet.

Although the Mars rover had been caught up in dust storms before, and, luckily, survived, this particular storm was described by NASA as "one of the most intense" and apparently the most taxing on the golf-car-sized robot.

An artist's depiction of NASA's Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover.

"We have and will continue to use multiple techniques in our attempts to contact the rover", said John Callas, project manager for Opportunity at the JPL. If not, the project team would have to consult with the Mars Program office at JPL and NASA headquarters "to determine the path forward". The images were taken between sol 5,000 and 5,006 if February 2018.

Opportunity and her twin, Spirit, launched in 2003. It traveled 4.8 miles (7.7 kilometers) before becoming stuck in a sand trap in late 2009.

Now, NASA engineers are working to hopefully get the rover back in communication with engineers on Earth. The U.S. space agency said the excessively cold temperatures would have likely been enough to cause critical components to become damaged.

NASA's engineers expect that the new commands and strategy will last for several weeks until, hopefully, they receive a signal back from Mars.

Vanessa Coleman