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Government Shutdown May Delay Mission to Mars... For More Than Two Years


The November 18 mission has a strict 20-day launch window.

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 again.

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 Gravity to form in the reader's mind.)

The shutdown is affecting not just space travel, but also air travel. Boeing (NYSE:BA) 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 produced by United Technologies (NYSE:UTX) 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 Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) and PayPal (NASDAQ:EBAY) 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 politicians.

Follow me on Twitter: @JoshWolonick and @Minyanville
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