NASA’s Lucy mission must launch in a three-week window that opens Oct. 16 to fly a complex trajectory that will take it past several Trojan asteroids. Credit: SwRI

WASHINGTON — A NASA asteroid mission that has remained on schedule for a mid-October launch despite disruptions caused by the pandemic is now facing a new challenge: the threat of a federal government shutdown.

The Lucy spacecraft is currently scheduled to launch in the predawn hours of Oct. 16 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The $981 million mission, part of NASA’s Discovery program, must launch during a window that is open only through Nov. 7 to fly a complex trajectory to visit several Trojan asteroids leading and trailing Jupiter in that planet’s orbit around the sun.

Preparations for the launch remain on schedule, project officials said during a Sept. 28 briefing. The spacecraft will soon be encapsulated within its payload fairing and transported to the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41, where it will be installed atop its Atlas 5 rocket.

“Things are moving really quickly,” Donya Douglas-Bradshaw, Lucy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said at the briefing.

However, actions — or, more accurately, a lack of action — 1,200 kilometers from the launch site could bring those activities to a sudden halt. The new fiscal year will begin Oct. 1 and Congress has yet to pass a temporary spending bill, known as a continuing resolution or CR, to fund the government until it passes full-year appropriations bills. Some Republican members oppose an increase in the debt limit, required to avoid a government default, that would also be included in the CR.

If Congress does not pass a CR by Oct. 1, the federal government would shut down for the first time since a five-week shutdown in December 2018 and January 2019. Nonessential government activities would stop and federal employees furloughed.

NASA’s contingency plan for a shutdown, last updated June 9, states that operations of the International Space Station and other spacecraft would continue in the event of a shutdown. “However, if a satellite mission has not yet been launched, unfunded work will generally be suspended on that project,” the document states.

Any halt to launch preparations could jeopardize its ability to launch during its three-week window, particularly if it faces other technical or weather delays. “We’re keeping a really close eye on what’s going on, and hoping that we can get a continuing resolution to continue operating,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said when asked about the potential impact of a shutdown.

Glaze initially didn’t say if Lucy has received an exception to the shutdown rules, allowing it to continue launch preparations. Among the categories of excepted activities in NASA’s shutdown plan are “space launch hardware processing activities, which are necessary to prevent harm to life or property.”

Asked later about the status of an exception, Glaze said the project is seeking one. “The request process is underway. It’s not completed yet,” she said. “We’re working on that and keeping a really, really close eye on what’s going on with Congress and the budget.”

Lucy must launch in that narrow window because of its complex trajectory. After its launch, it will perform flybys of the Earth in October 2022 and December 2024 before flying past an asteroid in the main belt in April 2025. It will then go past several objects in one cluster of Trojan asteroids between August 2027 and November 2028. After another Earth flyby in December 2030, it will fly by two objects in the other Trojan cluster in March 2033.

The unique trajectory can’t be easily repeated if Lucy misses its launch window. “Finding a trajectory that actually will allow us to visit all these types of objects has been a real chore,” said Hal Levison, principal investigator for the mission at the Southwest Research Institute. “This is an amazing trajectory that will not be possible again in the near future.”

Scientists like Levison hope that Lucy’s flybys of those Trojan asteroids will help them better understand the early history of the solar system. Some of those objects may be what he calls “fossils of planetary formation”; the mission is named Lucy after the fossilized skeleton of a human ancestor discovered nearly a half-century ago.

Until the threat of a government shutdown, the biggest challenge for the mission’s schedule had been the pandemic. “It was built over a 14-month period during a global pandemic, which believe me, was really difficult,” said Rich Lipe, spacecraft program manager at Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the spacecraft.

He said the company took measures such as splitting workers into “A-B teams” that didn’t physically interact with each other. “In case someone got sick, we wouldn’t take down the entire team,” he explained. “It took incredible team cooperation and flexibility, and I can’t thank the Lucy team enough.”

Those measures kept Lucy on schedule while also staying within budget. “They’ve done an incredible job of managing the project,” Glaze said of mission management. “They’re able to deliver on schedule and well within cost, even with the COVID pandemic going on.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...