Launch Preparations for MAVEN Back On

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WASHINGTON — Launch preparations are back on for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter despite the U.S. government shutdown that has idled all but 500 or so of NASA’s 18,000 civil servants.

MAVEN Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky told SpaceNews late Thursday afternoon (Oct. 3) that NASA has designated MAVEN launch preparations exempt from the shutdown since the orbiter must launch in 2013 in order to protect NASA spacecraft already in the Mars system.

The MAVEN team at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, also announced the news via Twitter. “#MAVEN receives emergency exemption. Work will resume @NASAKennedy to prepare for Nov. 18 launch window opening,” the team tweeted.

The change in designation allows pre-launch processing activities to resume since under the rules of the partial U.S. government shutdown that went into effect following the failure of Congress to enact fresh appropriations by an Oct. 1 deadline, only activities considered necessary to protect life and property are allowed to continue during the funding lapse. Suspending launch preparation had thrown the orbiter’s fall launch into doubt. 

“MAVEN is required as a communications relay in order to be assured of continued communications with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers,” Jakosky wrote in an Oct. 3 email. “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.”

MAVEN launch preparations join international space station operations as one of the activities NASA personnel are permitted to support during the shutdown, according to Jakosky.

“We have already restarted spacecraft processing at Kennedy Space Center, working toward being ready to launch on Nov. 18,” Jakosky said.

Delaying MAVEN’s launch some 26 months would add millions of dollars to the mission’s already $670 million price tag.

On top of that, Jakosky said the alignment of Earth and Mars in 2016 would require MAVEN to use more fuel to reach the red planet, potentially cutting into the time available for the craft’s science mission and imperiling its ability to serve as a communications relay for the next six years. Conditions in 2016 would also be poorer for MAVEN’s core science mission of measuring the interaction of solar particles with the upper Martian atmosphere, said Jakosky.

MAVEN is scheduled to  launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., aboard United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5. ULA, which never ceased the work, continues to prepare MAVEN’s rocket for flight at the Cape, spokeswoman Jessica Rye wrote in an Oct. 3 email.

Here’s the official annoucement LASP posted on its website Thursday evening:

MAVEN reactivation status update

MAVEN Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky

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.