GREENBELT, Md. — The launch of a flagship heliophysics mission that has already cost NASA more than $800 million could slip more than a year because of the partial government shutdown this past October, the head of the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center said here Feb. 18.

The Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, which is in the middle of thermal vacuum testing at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, could launch “anywhere from early 2015 to later than that,” Goddard Director Christopher Scolese told SpaceNews at a Maryland Space Business Roundtable luncheon. Asked about worse-case scenarios, Scolese allowed for the possibility that the mission will not launch until 2016.

“I don’t know,” Scolese said. “We’re still in negotiations with United Launch Alliance,” the Denver-based Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that launches most U.S. defense and intelligence payloads, and many NASA science missions. MMS is slated to launch on a ULA Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

But “it’s not going to be this year, I’m pretty confident of that,” Scolese said. 

MMS, consisting of four formation-flying spacecraft designed to study how the magnetic fields of Earth and the sun interact over a two-year period, had been scheduled to launch in late October or early November, Scolese said. However, the mission lost its spot in ULA’s launch queue because of the two-week government shutdown last October, which locked most employees out of Goddard, where the satellites were built.

There are no open slots in ULA’s manifest over the next year, Scolese said, so exactly when MMS will lift off is an open question. The heliophysics observatory could catch a break if another scheduled ULA mission, for either NASA or the Pentagon, misses its launch window, Scolese said. 

“There are still missions out there that aren’t as far along as MMS, and if they can’t make it, maybe we can fit in that slot,” Scolese told SpaceNews.

“The earliest available slot for launching MMS in 2015 is being identified,” ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye wrote in a Feb. 19 email. In the meantime, Rye said, another mission would be moved up into MMS’s old launch slot. 

MMS has experienced a range of challenges since the heliophysics community identified it as a top priority in a 10-year roadmap, or decadal survey, published back in 2003.

Technical problems delayed delivery of the spacecraft’s Electron Drift Instrument and Fast Plasma Investigation instrument, sapping funding reserves and delaying delivery of those instruments for integration and testing.

But the MMS team has also faced pressure from forces beyond its control. 

Even before the partial government shutdown froze work on the project, the MMS spacecraft were forced into a game of musical chairs by NASA’s $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope astronomy flagship.

The long-delayed telescope, which NASA decided could afford no further delays, was cleared to take MMS’s spot in the Goddard Space Flight Center’s thermal vacuum chamber in 2013. That forced the heliophysics mission to the Naval Research Laboratory, which took a $33 million bite out of the mission’s budget, according to a 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office.

NASA estimates MMS will cost about $850 million, in 2010 dollars, to build.

The Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio is overseeing construction of the MMS instrument suite under a fixed-price contract awarded in 2004 and worth roughly $230 million.

NASA had spent $801 million on MMS as of July, NASA spokeswoman Jennifer Rumburg wrote in an email. The mission is the fourth in NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Probes series, and could be the last in the mold established by the first in that series, the Thermosphere, Ionosphere, Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics probe.

In the latest heliophysics decadal survey, published in 2012, scientists recommended that the Solar Terrestrial Probes program be downsized for the sake of its “future viability” in a cash-strapped NASA. Budgets should be capped at $520 million, and management responsibilities vested in a single principal investigator, the survey recommended.

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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...