Planned to launch in November, the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) spacecraft will investigate the red planet’s atmosphere, but also serve as an important communications relay point from the Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, which are already exploring the planet’s surface. It is this section function, that of improving communications between Earth and the two robot rovers, that allowed the exemption to be used, and also the timing. If MAVEN does not launch by December 7th of this year, it would lose its window, as Mars would move too far away for there to be another attempt before 2016.
The rovers have continued to operate during the shutdown, despite NASA being forced to furlough over 97% of its workforce. The Anti-Deficiency Act is the law that defines what can be kept funded during a defunding of the federal government, and by analyzing the Act’s language, NASA has determined MAVEN is eligible for an emergency exception. The act saves the Mars mission from being delayed by the government shutdown because it will protect the two rovers as existing NASA assets.
Curiosity and Odyssey require an orbiting communication relay to continue sending info to Earth. Previously, the rovers used the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched in 2005, and before that the Mars Odyssey launched back in 2001, and now it is again time for another satellite to help the robots communicate. MAVEN was scheduled to launch on November 18 before the shutdown, and NASA technicians are optimistic they can still begin the mission on that date.
Previously, the Republican-led government shutdown had frozen all preparations to launch MAVEN from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station during its November 18 to December 7 window. Until NASA was able to analyze the law and make its determination, it appeared the spacecraft would be delayed another 26 months until the planets realigned. With MAVEN already having a price tag of $650 million, those involved in the mission were eager to get it back on track.
As is always the case with missions to Mars, a main component of MAVEN’s duties will be to determine if the red planet ever supported any kind of life. The orbiting satellite’s primary task will be analyze Mars’s atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide and determine how the balance of gasses have changed over time. These changes, in turn, will give Earth scientists information on how likely it is that the atmosphere of Mars could have ever allowed a life-form to inhabit the planet. However, this mission was not enough to save MAVEN from the government shutdown chopping block. It was only the satellite’s function supporting Curiosity and Opportunity that allowed it to meet the criteria for the Anti-Deficiency Act.
“Although the exception for MAVEN is not being done for science reasons, the science of MAVEN clearly will benefit from this action,” said the University of Colorado’s Bruce Jakosky, the MAVEN project’s Principal Investigator, in a posted statement. “Launching in 2013 allows us to observe at a good time in the eleven-year solar cycle.”
Jakosky also said that NASA scientists and technicians at the Kennedy Space Center have already restarted their spacecraft processing work for the November 18 launch. He and his compatriots were clearly pleased that NASA had managed to save the Mars mission from the Republican shutdown of the government.
Written By: Jeremy