Government Shutdown Stops MAVEN Work; Threatens NASA Mars Launch!

The upcoming Nov. 18 blastoff of NASA’s new MAVEN Mars orbiter is threatened by today’s US Federal Government shutdown. Launch processing work has now ceased! Spacecraft preps had been in full swing when MAVEN was unveiled to the media, including Universe Today, inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. With solar panels unfurled, this is exactly how MAVEN looks when flying through interplanetary space and orbiting Mars.
Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com[/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The upcoming Nov. 18 blastoff of NASA’s next mission to Mars – the “breathtakingly beautiful” MAVEN orbiter – is threatened by today’s (Oct. 1) shutdown of the US Federal Government. And the team is very “concerned”, although not yet “panicked.”

MAVEN’s on time launch is endangered by the endless political infighting in Washington DC. And the bitter gridlock could cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars or more on this mission alone!

Why? Because launch preparations at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) have ceased today when workers were ordered to stay home, said the missions top scientist in an exclusive to Universe Today.

“MAVEN is shut down right now!” Prof. Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN’s principal Investigator, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, told Universe Today in an exclusive post shutdown update today.

“Which means that civil servants and work at government facilities [including KSC] have been undergoing an orderly shutdown,” Jakosky told me.

The nominal interplanetary launch window for NASA’s $650 Million MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission) mission to study the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere only extends about three weeks until Dec. 7.

If MAVEN misses the window of opportunity this year, liftoff atop the Atlas V rocket would have to be postponed until early 2016 because the Earth and Mars only align favorably for launches every 26 months.

Any launch delay could potentially add upwards of tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in unbudgeted costs to maintain the spacecraft and rocket – and that’s money that NASA absolutely does not have in these fiscally austere times.

MAVEN spacecraft preps for Nov. 18 launch to Mars were on schedule when it was unveiled to the media inside the cleanroom at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. The Oct. 1 US Government shutdown has stopped all work. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
MAVEN spacecraft preps for Nov. 18 launch to Mars were on schedule when it was unveiled to the media inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. The Oct. 1 US Government shutdown has stopped all work. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

MAVEN and much of NASA are not considered “essential” – despite having responsibility for hundreds of ongoing mission operations costing tens of billions of dollars that benefit society here on Earth. So about 97% of NASA employees were furloughed today.

What’s happening with the spacecraft right now?

“The hardware is being safed, meaning that it will be put into a known, stable, and safe state,” Jakosky elaborated.

Team members say there are about nine days of margin built into the processing schedule, which still includes fueling the spacecraft.

“We’ll turn back on when told that we can. We have some margin days built into our schedule,” Jakosky told me.

“We’re just inside of 7 weeks to launch, and every day is precious, so we’re certainly as anxious as possible to get back to work as quickly as possible.

And he said the team will do whatever necessary, including overtime, to launch MAVEN to the Red Planet by Dec. 7.

“The team is committed to getting to the launch pad at this opportunity, and is willing to work double shifts and seven days a week if necessary. That plus the existing margin gives us some flexibility. “

“That’s why I’m concerned but not yet panicked at this point.”

But a lengthy delay would by problematical.

“If we’re shut down for a week or more, the situation gets much more serious,” Jakosky stated.

Until today, all of the spacecraft and launch preparations had been in full swing and on target – since it arrived on Aug. 2 after a cross country flight from the Colorado assembly facility of prime contractor Lockheed Martin.

Indeed it was all smiles and thumbs up when I was privileged to personally inspect MAVEN inside the clean room at KSC a few days ago on Friday, Sept 27 during a media photo opportunity day held for fellow journalists.

Until now, “MAVEN was on schedule and under budget” said Jakosky in an interview as we stood a few feet from the nearly fully assembled spacecraft.

See my MAVEN clean room photos herein.

NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter, chief scientist Prof. Bruce Jakosky of CU-Boulder and Ken Kremer of Universe Today inside the cleanroom at the Kennedy Space Center on sept 27, 2013. MAVEN launches to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter, chief scientist Prof. Bruce Jakosky of CU-Boulder and Ken Kremer of Universe Today inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center on sept 27, 2013. MAVEN was due to launch to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Florida – before the Oct. 1 government shutdown derailed plans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

And in an ultra rare viewing opportunity, the solar panels were fully unfurled.

“The solar panels look exactly as they will be when MAVEN is flying in space and around Mars.”

“To be here with MAVEN is breathtaking,” Jakosky told me. “

“Its laid out in a way that was spectacular to see!”

Magnetometer science instrument juts out from MAVEN solar panel during launch processing inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Magnetometer science instrument juts out from MAVEN solar panel during launch processing inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

If absolutely necessary it might be possible to extend the launch window a little bit beyond Dec. 7, but its uncertain and would require precise new calculations of fuel margins.

“The nominal 20-day launch period doesn’t take into account the fact that our actual mass is less than the maximum allowable mass,” Jakosky explained.

“The last day we can launch has some uncertainty, because it also requires enough fuel to get into orbit before our mission would begin to be degraded.”

MAVEN team members, including chief scientist Bruce Jakosky (2nd from left)  pose with spacecraft inside the cleanroom at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
MAVEN team members, including chief scientist Bruce Jakosky (2nd from left) pose with spacecraft inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It sure was breathtaking for me and all the media to stand beside America’s next Mission to Mars. And to contemplate it’s never before attempted science purpose.

“MAVENS’s goal is determining the composition of the ancient Martian atmosphere and when it was lost, where did all the water go and how and when was it lost,” said Jakosky.

That’s the key to understanding when and for how long Mars was much more Earth-like compared to today’s desiccated Red Planet.

Following a 10 month interplanetary voyage, MAVEN would fire thrusters and brake into Mars orbit in September 2014, joining NASA’s Red Planet armada comprising Curiosity, Opportunity, Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Lets all hope and pray for a short government shutdown – but the outlook is not promising at this time.

Stay tuned.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about MAVEN, Curiosity, Mars rovers, Cygnus, Antares, SpaceX, Orion, LADEE, the Govt shutdown and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Oct 3: “Curiosity, MAVEN and the Search for Life on Mars – (3-D)”, STAR Astronomy Club, Brookdale Community College & Monmouth Museum, Lincroft, NJ, 8 PM

Oct 8: NASA’s Historic LADEE Lunar & Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Princeton University, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton (AAAP), Princeton, NJ, 8 PM

Haiku for Mars: Winners Selected for MAVEN Mission

Fans of Mars and spaceflight waxed poetic as the haiku selected to travel to Mars aboard the MAVEN spacecraft were announced earlier this month.

The contest received 12,530 valid entries from May 1st through the contest cutoff date of July 1st. Students learned about Mars, planetary exploration and the MAVEN mission as they composed haiku ranging from the personal to the insightful to the hilarious.

“The contest has resonated with people in ways that I never imagined! Both new and accomplished poets wrote poetry to reflect their views of Earth and Mars, their feelings about space exploration, their loss of loved ones who have passed on, and their sense of humor,” said Stephanie Renfrow, MAVEN Education & Public Outreach & Going to Mars campaign lead.

A total of 39,100 votes were cast in the contest; all entries receiving more than 2 votes (1,100 in all) will be carried on a DVD affixed to the MAVEN spacecraft bound for Martian orbit.

Five poems received more than a thousand votes. Among these were such notables as that of one 8th grader from Denver Colorado, who wrote;

                Phobos & Deimos

                          Moons orbiting around Mars

                                       Snared by Gravity

Another notable entry which was among the poems sited for special recognition by the MAVEN team was that of Allison Swets of Michigan;

                 My body can’t walk

                            My mouth can’t make words but I

                                         Soar to Mars today

377 artwork entries were also selected to fly aboard MAVEN as well.

Didn’t get picked? There’s still time to send your name aboard MAVEN along with thousands that have already been submitted. You’ve got until September 10!

Part of NASA’s discontinued Scout-class of missions, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission, or MAVEN, is due to launch out of Cape Canaveral on November 18th, 2013. Selected in 2008, MAVEN has a target cost of less than $500 million dollars US, not including launch carrier services atop an Atlas V rocket in a 401 flight configuration.

(Credit: NASA).
An artist’s concept of MAVEN in orbit around Mars (Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center).

The Phoenix Lander was another notable Scout-class mission that was extremely successful, concluding in 2008.

Principal investigator for MAVEN is the University of Boulder at Colorado’s Bruce Jakosky of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP).

The use of poetry to gain public interest in the mission is appropriate, as MAVEN seeks to solve the riddle that is the Martian atmosphere. How did Mars lose its atmosphere over time? What role does the solar wind play in stripping it away? And what is the possible source of that anomalous methane detected by Mars Global Surveyor from 1999 to 2004?

MAVEN is based on the design of the Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. It will carrying an armada of instruments, including a Neutral Gas & Ion Mass Spectrometer, a Particle and Field Package with several analyzers, and a Remote Sensing Package built by LASP.

MAVEN just arrived at the Kennedy Space Center earlier this month for launch processing and mating to its launch vehicle. Launch will be out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on November 18th with a 2 hour window starting at 1:47 PM EST/ 18:47 UT.

MAVEN spacecraft at a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver, Colo. (Credit: Lockheed Martin).
MAVEN spacecraft at a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver, Colo. (Credit: Lockheed Martin).

Assuming that MAVEN launches at the beginning of its 20 day window, it will reach Mars for an orbital insertion on September 22, 2014. MAVEN will orbit the Red Planet in an elliptical 150 kilometre by 6,200 kilometre orbit, joining the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the European Space Agencies’ Mars Express and the aging Mars Odyssey orbiter, which has been surveying Mars since 2001.

The window for an optimal launch to Mars using a minimal amount of fuel opens every 24 to 26 months. During the last window of opportunity in 2011, the successful Mars Curiosity rover and the ill-fated Russian mission Phobos-Grunt sought to make the trip.

This time around, MAVEN will be joined by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, launching from the Satish Dhawan Space Center on October 21st. If successful, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) will join Russia, ESA & NASA in nations that have successfully launched missions to Mars.

This window comes approximately six months before Martian opposition, which next occurs on April 8th, 2014. In 2016, ESA’s ExoMars Mars Orbiter and NASA’s InSight Lander will head to Mars. And 2018 may see the joint ESA/NASA ExoMars rover and… if we’re lucky, Dennis Tito’s proposed crewed Mars 2018 flyby.

Interestingly, MAVEN also arrives in Martian orbit just a month before the close 123,000 kilometre passage of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, although as of this time, there’s no word if it will carry out any observations of the comet.

These launches will also represent the first planetary missions to depart Earth since 2011. You can follow the mission as @MAVEN2Mars on Twitter. We’ll also be attending the MAVEN Conference and Workshop this weekend in Boulder and tweeting our adventures (wi-fi willing) as @Astroguyz. We also plan on attending the November launch in person as well!

And in the end, it was perhaps for the good of all mankind that our own rule-breaking (but pithy) Mars haiku didn’t get selected:

                        Rider of the Martian Atmosphere

                                  Taunting Bradbury’s golden-bee armed  Martians 

                                       While dodging the Great Galactic Ghoul

Hey, never let it be said that science writers make great poets!