U.S. shutdown threatens launch of NASA's next mission to Mars

The latest government shutdown may cause NASA to miss its next mission to Mars.

Story highlights

  • Seven weeks before the planned launch, "we are shutdown," says project leader
  • If the mission misses its window, it will have to wait another 26 months
  • The MAVEN project aims to study the Red Planet's loss of much of its atmosphere
  • A launch rehearsal and mission readiness review have already been canceled

The effects of the U.S. federal government shutdown are threatening to ripple out into the solar system.

NASA's next mission to Mars, due to launch next month, is in danger of being delayed.

"We are just inside of seven weeks to launch and we are shut down," Bruce Jakosky, the head of the mission, said late Wednesday.

The project, known as Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), aims to put a spacecraft in orbit around the Red Planet to study how it lost much of its atmosphere and became a desolate world.

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MAVEN is currently scheduled to take off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on November 18 and has a 20-day launch window.

If it misses that opportunity, the team will have to wait more than two years for their next chance to launch, according to Jakosky, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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Large parts of the U.S. government began shutting down early Tuesday, and there is so far little sign of a solution to the political crisis that caused the stoppages.

The shutdown has already had an effect on preparations for the Mars mission, with a launch dress rehearsal and mission readiness review canceled this week, Jakosky said.

The mission has some margin for delays in its schedule, he said, but "every day is gold. We hate to give up margin days."

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When the shutdown started to become a real prospect, MAVEN scientists began talking to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland in the hope that their project would be exempt, Jakosky said.

But it wasn't.

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If the paralysis drags on, the setback to the project could be more than just a 26 month wait for the next launch window.

"The MAVEN mission is studying the sun's impact on the Mars upper atmosphere," Jakosky said. "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."

NASA grounded by shutdown