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Update: Mars Mission Granted Exemption From Government Shutdown


The MAVEN mission has a tight launch window that it may have missed. Now, it will likely remain on schedule.

Update: 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 any pay.

The original story, published on Thursday, October 3, 2013:

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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