US government shutdown threatens MAVEN mission to Mars

It's been a bumpy week here in the US.  I'm back early from Yellowstone because, like the rest of the world's tourists and scientists, I've been kicked out.  While inconvenient for me and the tens of thousands of scientists at the alphabet soup of government research labs (USGS, NIST, NOAA, NOAO, etc), it could be downright disastrous for our next mission to Mars.

MAVEN is set to launch later this year.  If it doesn't, we'll have to wait two years to try again.  (Image credit: NASA)

Note: the MAVEN mission was developed at and is operated by my employer, the Laboratory for Atmospheric and  Space Physics at the University of Colorado - Boulder.  I do not have inside information on the status of any aspect of the mission.

 Before this week, MAVEN had been barreling down on its anticipated launch date of November 18.  All the components of the spacecraft have been delivered and final assembly of the vehicle is in progress.  After that, a final set of tests represents the last hurdle to launch.  But, to build the spacecraft and perform these tests, NASA technicians will need to put in many hours of crunch-time labor.  That's pretty tough to do when you're home sitting on the couch because your job has been furloughed.

You might contend that a delay in the mission puts MAVEN in the same basket as the rest of America - cranky and behind schedule.  But even a relatively short government shutdown could be disastrous.  That's because missions to Mars have extremely short launch windows.  The solar system is a big place and getting around is a time consuming process.  For missions to most planets, this requires years of winding through the solar system and performing close flybys of other planets to gain speed.  Mars is reasonably close to us, so we can sidestep all that trouble - with a catch.  The trajectory requires that Mars and Earth be in a single specific configuration when the mission blasts off.  This configuration occurs only every two years.  This means that MAVEN must  launch between mid-November and early January.  If it doesn't, we have to wait two years before trying again.

The good news is, there is some slack in the schedule.  The bad news is that, two days in, Congress seems no more interested in paying our bills than they did before.  The worst news, however, is that MAVEN has a rare opportunity to observe a comet in the first week of its mission.  If the timeline slips beyond that, a valuable scientific opportunity will be lost.  And, if the mission slips two years, it'll cost hundreds of millions of dollars to get things going again.  That's scientific opportunities that we can't afford to miss and money that NASA doesn't have.  So, Congress, figure it out.