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Whew! Researchers had worried the U.S. government shutdown might cause the MAVEN spacecraft (artist’s conception, above) to miss its launch date. But NASA officials say it’s OK to spend money on the project.

MAVEN/Lockheed Martin

Shutdown Won't Prevent NASA's MAVEN Mission From Lifting Off

MAVEN is a go after all. After days of worries that the U.S. government shutdown might delay the launch of the Mars probe, NASA officials ruled today that work on the spacecraft can proceed, mission principal investigator Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado, Boulder, tells ScienceInsider.

Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) is designed to study the martian atmosphere, in part to figure out how its climate apparently became inhospitable for life. It is scheduled to launch sometime between 18 November and 7 December, but the congressional impasse over spending had put meeting that schedule in doubt. NASA has essentially shuttered its space science operations.

But MAVEN is also needed to help relay signals from Earth to the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers now roaming Mars, officials found, making the mission eligible for emergency funding during the shutdown.

Jakosky explained the details in an e-mail:

I learned this morning that NASA has analyzed the MAVEN mission … 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.

You can see our complete shutdown coverage here.