Late yesterday, and after almost three full days of work stoppage
due to the current government shutdown, NASA's MAVEN mission to
Mars was granted "emergency exemption" by the government, so
critical launch preparations have begun again in earnest. The $650
million MAVEN mission is tasked with putting a satellite in Mars's
orbit to study how the planet lost its atmosphere and became
desolate over the course of billions of years.
Importantly the project has a November 18 launch date and a 20-day
window after that wherein to launch. If MAVEN misses that window,
it would have to wait to launch for over two years. The "emergency
exemption" means that MAVEN will still likely make the launch
window, as the project has nine set-aside margin days, three of
which have been used thanks to the shutdown.
The exemption was granted because MAVEN, in a secondary role, will
serve as a communications relay for NASA's two Mars rovers,
Curiosity and Opportunity.
NASA currently has two orbiters supporting the rovers, Mars
Odyssey, launched in 2001, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter,
launched in 2005. Both are old, suffer occasional glitches, and are
more likely to break down and leave the rovers out of
communication, which would threaten those missions.
Although work has begun again on the project, the scientists and
engineers involved, who are now working overtime, are not receiving
The original story, published on Thursday, October 3,
The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), set to
begin next month, may be delayed by the ongoing government
shutdown. The project will put a satellite, currently scheduled to
launch from Kennedy Space Center on November 18, in Mars's orbit to
study how it lost the majority of its atmosphere and became
desolate billions of years ago. MAVEN has a 20-day launch window,
meaning that if it does not leave our planet within 20 days of
November 18, it will have to wait for more than two years, which is
when Earth and Mars will be in the required orbital positions
Before the shutdown, the MAVEN team began a conversation with
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, asking the agency
to make their project exempt from the shutdown, but alas, MAVEN was
not deemed essential enough. So far, a launch dress rehearsal and
mission readiness review have both been canceled.
If the launch is delayed past its 20-day window, its second launch,
26 months later, will be at a less than ideal time. As Jakosky
said, "The MAVEN mission is studying the sun's impact on the Mars
upper atmosphere. Launching in this window places them at a solar
maximum, for the greatest impacts of the sun's effect on Mars'
upper atmosphere. The next window, if they are forced to launch,
would put the spacecraft's arrival at solar minimum."
Beginning on Tuesday, 18,000 NASA employees, a full 97% of the
agency's workforce, were put on furlough. However, the two American
astronauts in space right now, Karen Nyberg and Mike Hopkins, who
are onboard the International Space Space Station, are still
working, and so are their support staffs and Mission Control. (No
need for images from the new film
to form in the reader's mind.)
The shutdown is affecting not just space travel, but also air
) has said that because US aviation officials need to certify the
planes, there may be delays in the delivery of its jetliners,
including the new 787 Dreamliner. Moreover, military aircraft
) and other government contractors will see delays because quality
inspectors are furloughed.
As the shutdown continues, this news will perhaps become more and
more illustrative of the limitations of government-funded space
travel. Independent space exploration companies like SpaceX -- the
space transport company launched by
) entrepreneur Elon Musk -- Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, and
the less-than-a-year-old asteroid-mining company Deep Space
Industries certainly face far less dependence on bickering
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