The U.S. government shutdown won’t halt plans to launch NASA’s next Mars mission, scheduled for November 18, space agency officials have decided. The MAVEN (Mars Atmospheric and Volatile Evolution) spacecraft is required as a communications relay for NASA’s Mars rovers and therefore is exempt from the ongoing federal shutdown.
The $485 million mission has only a 20-day launch window to reach Mars that begins on November 18. The mission is designed to investigate the atmosphere of the red planet. But the ongoing U.S. government shutdown, which has closed NASA, raised the possibility of a two-year delay in the spacecraft’s launch, threatening higher costs for the mission. (See “Shutdown Hits NASA.”)
“MAVEN is required as a communications relay in order to be assured of continued communications with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers,” says MAVEN principal investigator Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado in Boulder, by email and in a blog post on the mission’s website. “The rovers are presently supported by Mars Odyssey launched in 2001 and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched in 2005. Launching MAVEN in 2013 protects the existing assets that are at Mars today.”
So, space agency officials have declared the mission essential to protecting its assets already on Mars, making it exempt from work shut-downs afflicting much of the space agency.
“Although the exception for MAVEN is not being done for science reasons, the science of MAVEN clearly will benefit from this action. Launching in 2013 allows us to observe at a good time in the 11-year solar cycle,” Jakosky says. “We have already restarted spacecraft processing at Kennedy Space Center, working toward being ready to launch on November 18. We will continue to work over the next couple of days to identify any changes in our schedule or plans that are necessary to stay on track.”