The cloud of pessimism over NASA because of funding shortfalls in the federal budget and partial government shutdown lifted somewhat today when the agency’s MAVEN mission to Mars was granted a special exemption from the mass furloughs that have caused activities across NASA and other agencies to grind to a halt. This has allowed workers to return to Kennedy Space Center and pick up prelaunch processing activities, keeping the $650 million mission to study the Martian atmosphere on track for a November 18 launch.
“Basically, we’re back, full speed,” University of Colorado planetary scientist and MAVEN’t Prinicpal Investigator Bruce Jakosky told NBC News earlier in the day.
In a blog posting on the MAVEN mission website, Jakosky wrote, “I learned this morning that NASA has analyzed the MAVEN mission relative to the Anti-Deficiency Act and determined that it meets the requirements allowing an emergency exception.”
Specifically, missions currently at the Red Planet, and therefore meeting the requirement for “operational” missions exempt from stoppage, will rely on MAVEN to act as a communications hub to relay data and commands between Mars and Earth. Because of this dependency, it’s critical that MAVEN launch in the current Earth-Mars window which closes in late December. It’s equally important that the spacecraft have enough propellant on board to conduct its full science mission and fulfill its supporting role for other missions.
“If this had gone on into next week, it would have jeopardized the Nov. 18 launch day,” Jakosky said.
MAVEN, short for Mars Atmospheric and Volatile EvolutioN, will study Mars’ atmosphere and its role in the surface dynamics of the planet. A key investigation is what role the atmosphere played in the loss of water and other volatiles on the Martian surface.
MAVEN is also intended to serve as a communications relay for the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers currently exploring the planet. There are two relay stations in orbit now – Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. However, Odyssey is operating well beyond its design lifetime and MRO is similarly aging. MAVEN’s presence will ensure continued communications beyond 2015.
Here is the full text of Jakosky’s blog post today:
“Let me tell you the current status of MAVEN. I learned this morning that NASA has analyzed the MAVEN mission relative to the Anti-Deficiency Act and determined that it meets the requirements allowing an emergency exception.”
“MAVEN is required as a communications relay in order to be assured of continued communications with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers. 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.”
“A delay in the launch date by more than a week past the end of the nominal launch period, or a delay of launch to 2016, would require additional fuel to get into orbit. This would have precluded having sufficient fuel for MAVEN to carry out its science mission and to operate as a relay for any significant time. Our nominal launch period runs from 18 November through 7 December, and we can launch as late as about 15 December without a significant impact on our combined science and relay activities. There is no NASA relay orbiter planned post-MAVEN.”
“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 eleven-year solar cycle.”
“We have already restarted spacecraft processing at Kennedy Space Center, working toward being ready to launch on Nov. 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.”
— MAVEN Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky
For more information, check out the MAVEN Mission Homepage at the University of Colorado: http://lasp.colorado.edu/home/maven/
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